Election day approaching: Time for a lengthy rant!
Have you registered to vote? I just mailed in my registration from my new address last week. Election day is November 7. If you've moved, or you just turned 18 or whatever, you need to make sure you're registered at your current address. In Illinois, you are supposed to be registered 27 days before the election, which means October 11 (so yeah, this post is about a week too late to be helpful).
Yeah it's not a presidential election. So what? It's really sad that a lot of people only vote in presidential elections, because the state and local ones are more important in some ways -- your vote counts for more, and the result is likely to have a more immediate impact on your life.
In case you live in a cave, we are electing senators, representatives, and governors next month. The choices for Illinois governor are pretty lame. But the congressional elections are especially important, because we have a solid chance to take away the Republicans' majority in one or both houses. Why does this matter? Well... it's time for a rant.
Why I don't write much about politics
In the past, I have mainly stayed away from writing explicitly partisan political rants on this website. I figure there are plenty of political "bloggers" writing "blogs" in the "blogosphere" (oh how I curse the coiner of that stupid word) that you could go read. And anything I have to say about politics has usually already been said better by someone more knowledgable than me, and you might as well go read their page instead of mine.
Also, I never ever want to turn into a partisan hack. You know -- those people who support one party or the other like it's their local sports team; they viciously attack everything the other team does, while defending everything their own team does. Even when their own team does something obviously wrong, they'll make excuses for it.
I don't want to be one of those people. When I was young and naiive (by which I mean 2 or 3 years ago) I used to be a pretty hardcore liberal, like most college students. Gradually I started realizing that the whole liberal-conservative, left-right thing is fundamentally bogus. There are a lot more than two positions on most issues. There are important issues that don't get discussed nearly enough because they don't fit on the left-right axis. If you take a good hard look at the ideas of "leftism" and "rightism", each of them contains much that is hypocritical, and each of them spends far more time attacking the other than proposing useful solutions for problems.
Both "left" and "right" are what Dawkins would call virulent meme clusters -- they're like computer viruses that take over your brain. Each tells you what opinion you should have on all issues. Each makes you see humans carrying the other virus as enemies. Each makes you uncritically accept illogical arguments as long as they support the opinion the virus is giving you. In fact I think "left" and "right" are really two versions of the same virus, because neither one could survive without the other -- each depends on instilling fear and hatred of the other version of the virus in order to motivate their hosts.
(George Washington didn't want to have political parties at all, because he recognized the danger that politicians would be more loyal to their party than to America. This is exactly what I see happening.)
I think I have finally gotten all of the leftist-virus out of my head, but old habits of thought are hard to break. So, part of the reason I don't write about politics much is because politics these days is all about how much Bush Junior is screwing things up. And Bush Junior makes me mad. And anger is an emotion that clouds rational thought. So when we learn that, for instance, the government has been compiling a secret database of every phone call made inside the United States for several years, I get mad, and sometimes I don't know whether I'm mad because I should be mad or whether I'm mad because of habits I have left over from the leftist-ideological-virus. In other words, I don't trust myself to be objective. Therefore, ironically, when I feel very strongly about the news of the day, I usually won't put anything on this site. I'll just read a lot about it and stew in my thoughts, trying to break it down as rationally and neutrally as I can, to try to form my own conclusion, which I mostly keep to myself.
And I usually don't have anybody with whom I can have a serious discussion about it, either. I have coworkers (well, one certain coworker) and family members (well, one certain family member) who I know will disagree with me quite strongly, and the argument would put a strain on our relationship, so I'd often rather keep quiet about it and preserve the harmony. My friends from school, on the other hand, usually already agree with me, so there is very little to say about any of it. So most days I have this maelstrom of thoughts about current events, bottled up in my head, with nowhere to go. I don't think it's healthy long term. So I think from now on I will just let it all spill out onto this page. Because what else is the internet for? And maybe a commenter will help me to understand something better or will correct me when I get something wrong, or maybe just give me some lively debate.
Doonesbury comic, scanned in from the Chicago Tribune, is copyright Gary Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate, used without permission, please don't sue me, I'll take it off if you ask.
We don't need no thought control
How I lost my faith in liberalism is a story for another time. Suffice to say, my basic stance these days is that I am opposed to all ideologies. Following an ideology, even if its contents seem benign, robs you of critical thinking. It makes you search out evidence to support your preconceived conclusions and reject any evidence to the contrary.
I think the biggest lesson we should learn from the bloody history of the 20th century, it's that whenever the followers of an ideology gained total power in a country, the result was inevitably blood and horror on a massive scale. It doesn't matter if the ideology was left, right, center, or unclassifiable; wherever there was a group of people claiming to have the Single-Theory-That-Explains-Everything (Join Us And We Will Build A Glorious New Regime, Oppose Us And You Are The Enemy), millions of people were murdered. Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, China, Japan, and so on and so on -- seems like most of the world succumbed to this fever under a variety of different names. People join an ideology because it seems to give them easy answers, and it makes them feel like part of something big. They are all too willing to let the ideology override their own consciences, because they think they are justified in making a few "sacrifices" to create a better world.
When the 21st century got started, I was hoping that this stage of history might be behind us; but no, here's a new murderous absolutist ideology -- or rather, a very old one which has only recently gotten our attention: fundamentalist Islam. These guys are sick, scary fuckers. They believe in an evil god who would send them to heaven for killing unbelievers. They're so terrified of anything remotely sexual that they feel the need to hide women away and pretend they don't exist. And stone women to death for showing bare ankle. They have such an overdeveloped sense of honor that they go into a murderous rage because some Danish guy draws a cartoon of their prophet. They have no way of coping with the modern world, so they want to destroy it. They want to die because they think this life sucks so much that they want to get straight on to what they imagine comes next. There's no reasoning with people who are completely controlled by religion.
Of course I'm talking about the fundamentalists, the "Islamofascists", I'm not saying every Muslim is a bad guy. I knew some who were in America training to be doctors, and they were fine people. But the ones who join terror organizations are really, really bad. And their badness cannot be completely explained by the fact that they are poor and oppressed. If you actually try to read the Quran you will understand that a lot of the violence really does come straight out of the book. We can live in peace with Muslims who use their own judgement and ignore the bad parts of the Quran, that is, thoughtful and civilized Muslims who follow their consciences and don't succumb to the ideology. There is no way to live in peace with someone who takes the whole Quran as an instruction book, because that book is full of evil shit. I hasten to add that the Old Testament is full of evil shit, too. Christianity only became civilized when Christians figured out that they had to use their own judgement and ignore the evil parts of the Old Testament. (I grudgingly admit the New Testament is mostly OK, except for Revelations).
It's the 21st century and we're back at war against another murderous absolutist ideology (one that belongs to the 8th century). And the relative peace and prosperitya and more-or-less global cooperation of the 1990s seems like a historical fluke. So depressing. But the pattern is clear: ideology makes people ignore their own consciences. Ideology turns people into killers. Ideology starts wars.
To America's credit, in the modern age we have never let an absolutist ideology take over our country. I credit this to our tradition of distrust of authority, independence of mind, and skepticism. (No I'm not being sarcastic! It might be easy to scoff at the idea of Americans having independent minds in the TV age, but compare us to just about any non-Western-European country and you will see that Americans are much less impressed with conformity, tradition, authoritarianism, etc.)
Additionally, our system of government is based on separation of powers, of checks and balances, etc. It's based on the assumption that power corrupts, human beings are falliable, and therefore nobody should be trusted with too much power. That's why the President can veto Congress, why Congress can impeach the President, why the Supreme Court can find laws unconstitutional, why some powers are explicitly denied to the national government, and most importantly why we get a chance to vote the bastards out every couple of years. From the beginning we have assumed that power-hungry individuals are going to try to take over the government, and so we're supposed to have everybody watching everybody else so we can squash the authoritarian impulse when it arises. (There is a certain similarity to the peer-review system in science, or the code-review system we programmers use at Humanized: nobody knows for sure what's right or not, so instead of a central authority, we have everybody examine everybody else's work looking for mistakes. It's the best way to discover and correct errors!)
Authoritarian ideologies hate checks and balances. They hate criticism and open discussion of alternatives. They thrive on enemies, hierarchies and centralized, unquestionable authority.
Here's my main point: It's the duty of every American to prevent an authoritarian ideology from taking over our country. Don't think it can't happen here! It could. It very certainly could. And it could come from either virus. Both the leftism-virus-ideology and the rightism-virus-ideology need to be opposed. When either one gains too much power, we have to put a stop to it.
At this particular moment it happens to be the rightism version of the virus that is the most dangerous, because it has infected enough people to gain control of all three branches of the federal government. And they have already begun dismantling the checks-and-balances system and dismantling the Bill of Rights.
President as King?
To be specific, the Republicans have subscribed to a peculiar and extremely un-conservative theory of government: the idea that the President is above the law. (Richard Nixon was also famous for holding this theory.)
It begins with the idea that the President alone can declare war (it is supposed to be Congress who makes this decision, but the current Congress has become such a passive bunch of yes-men that all of Bush Jr's wars have effectively been declared by him and then rubber-stamped by Congress). Then, since a state of war exists, the commander-in-chief can invoke emergency powers to override any law that gets in his way -- so goes this theory. This is part of the really quite radical (as in, not conservative at all) ideology that the Republicans now embody. When the president declares certain people to be "enemy combatants", and throws them in jail without trial -- without even charging them with any crime -- that's an application of this theory. Note that he has done this to at least one American citizen, captured on American soil. Note that many of the enemy combatants have languished for years in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, or one of the top-secret Eastern European CIA torture-chambers, without ever hearing the charges against them. The president furthermore claims the right to ignore the Geneva Convention and define by himself what is and what is not "torture", so that interrogators can inflict any torment upon these prisoners that they feel is neccessary, as long as the president defines it as an (ahem) "coercive interrogation technique" and not as "torture". (Remember that since these prisoners have not been tried, we do not know whether they're guilty or innocent, nor do we know whether they have any useful intelligence or not.)
When the president taps your phone lines, without a warrant, and in violation of even the flimsy protections granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he is again acting according to the radical theory that he can just ignore laws he doesn't like. Consider also his use of presidential signing statements, a formerly obscure action where the president, when signing a bill into law, can write a brief note clarifying how he interprets the law. Well, Bush Jr has made orders of magnitude more signing statements than any other president, and in many cases he has used them to completely change the intent of a law. In other words, he's accumulating to himself the power of law-making, which is reserved for the legislative branch. He has also stacked the supreme court with appointees who are friendly to the theory of president-as king, what Samuel Alito calls the theory of the "unitary executive". Checks-and-balances are all but gone. The "USA PATRIOT" act seemed pretty ominous when it was first passed, but it was nothing compared to the government overreach that's happened since then. Former presidents have, of course, suspended people's rights during wartime. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus (the right to challenge the evidence against you in court) during the Civil War. FDR imprisoned Japanese-Americans during WWII. That doesn't mean these things were right, neccessarily. But the main difference is: the Civil War ended. WWII ended. We got Habeas Corpus back and let the Japanese-Americans go free after the war. When is the War On Terror going to end? What are the victory conditions? When all the terrorists are dead? How will we know? And anybody in the world could become a terrorist at any time, if they choose to use terrorism as a tactic. In short, there is no victory. It's not like there's a country we're fighting that can surrender to us. The War on Terror is a permanent state of affairs. That means that the President is using a permanent state of war to justify having permanent dictatorial powers. Will this carry over to future presidents? What guarantee do we have that one of them will not abuse these emergency powers? Merely by using a combination of the powers that Bush Jr has already claimed to have, a future government could listen in on your phone conversations, decide based on what you say that you should be classified as an "enemy combatant" (perhaps simply for criticizing the government), and then lock you up without charges or trial, and torture you indefinitely. We put limits on the power of our president for a reason.
When Bush Jr and friends break these limits, they do in the name of protecting us from terrorism, of course. The Republicans been using people's fear of terrorism as a kind of blank-check excuse for anything they want to do. "We have to invade Iraq or the terrorists will win!" "We have to torture prisoners or the terrorists will win!" "We have to imprison people indefinitely without trial or the terrorists will win!" "We have to tap your phone lines without a warrant or the terrorists will win!" "We have to violate the Geneva Conventions or the terrorists will win!"
Fear is always a tool of authoritarian ideologies. Keep people afraid, and they won't complain when you take their rights away.
Let's review the Republicans' "accomplishments"
Now when I say that they are using fear as a tool, I'm not implying that I think the terrorist threat is imaginary!! It's real, and it's serious! In fact what I'm saying is that, despite their surveillance and expansion of government and so on, the Republicans are not doing a good job of fighting terrorism. They talk a good game, but when you actually look at their record, there is much that they have either failed at or neglected to try.
They have done nothing to secure our ports, where a terrorist could easily smuggle a weapon of mass destruction in aboard a shipping container. They have done nothing to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. They have done nothing about Saudi Arabia, the global center of terrorist ideology and funding. They failed to prevent 9/11 despite growing evidence that the government had plenty of clues it was coming. They have not caught Osama Bin Laden. They have failed to bring peace or freedom to Afghanistan. They have failed to bring peace or freedom to Iraq. They went into Iraq based on faulty intelligence. They went into Iraq with one third the number of troops that the senior Pentagon staff estimated as the minimum number to hold the country. They went into Iraq with no plan for how to establish order after the old regime was destroyed. The Iraq war, whatever you thought about it in the first place, has been waged incompetently, and as a result, it has increased, not decreased, the terrorist threat, according to the national intelligence estimate. Republicans have failed to make any progress at all on the israeli/palestinian situation, which feeds terrorism. They have gotten us into a situation where Iran is going nuclear and there's nothing we can do about it. They have weakened our ability to respond to threats by overextending our military. They have weakened our global strategic position by breaking treaties, alienating our allies, and making us new enemies.
The recent news that North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon is especially troubling. Wasn't North Korea part of Bush's "Axis of Evil"? Didn't he say that our highest priority for national security was to keep weapons-of-mass-destruction out of the hands of the Axis of Evil so that they would not be sold to terrorists who could use them on America? Didn't he stress how important that was? Wasn't that the justification for going to war in Iraq? Hasn't that been the justification for all the lies and secrecy and violation of treaties and circumvention of constitutional limitations on government -- the justification that it was all to keep WMD out of the hands of the "Axis of Evil"?
Well it has obviously failed because one member of the Axis of Evil definitely has nukes, another (Iran) is halfway there, and the third (Iraq) was the only one that didn't have any WMD, but we're still fighting a war there three years after Bush went out on that aircraft carrier with the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" sign, and the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq now exceeds the number of American citizens killed on 9/11, and what did they die for? What the hell has it all been for, now that Kim Il-Jong has the bomb, and he would be more than happy to either hit our allies with it or sell it to Al-Qaeda like a real-life version of the plot of "Team America: World Police"? And our real-life "Team America" never did a single thing about it. Their idea of being "tough on North Korea" was to refuse to have any negotiations with North Korea. Gee that sure worked great.
Bush Jr, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, etc: Your record on fighting terrorism is one of miserable failure. The one, single issue that you said was sooo important that it justified you breaking all these laws? You suck at it. Get the hell out!. Get the hell out of the White House and give the job to somebody who can do it competently!
Those who are motivated by an authoritarian ideology will always fail. This, again, is the lesson of history. Successful leadership requires facing facts and dealing with them. And ideological True Believers do not make decisions based on fact; the ideology tells them the answers and if they engage with facts at all it is only to pick and choose facts to prop up their desired conclusion. It's like Stephen Colbert says: "I don't trust facts, because facts are based on reality, and reality has a well-known liberal bias." The ideology says to invade Iraq, so they look for justification. (There is evidence that certain members of the administration wanted to invade Iraq right from the time they took office, and after September 11, 2001 they immediately said "How can we make this into a justification?") They say Saddam has links to Al-Qaeda. Well, no, he doesn't. We now know for sure that there were absolutely no links. Well, no problem, we'll invent another justification: Iraq has WMDs. Well, no, they don't. We found that out for sure too. No problem, another justification: We're going into Iraq to liberate the people and promote democracy!
And we can see how well that worked. Technically Iraq has a democratically elected government, but it is a farce which is powerless to stop the civil war which is now claiming an average of 7,000 Iraqi civilian lives per month. The country has no functional infrastructure and is now full of secterian militia who roam around every day and night chopping the heads off of anybody they don't like, and neither the supposed Iraqi government nor the American army seem to be able to stop them. Iraq is now a hot-spot for terrorist recruitment. How is this supposed to be better than Saddam?
Although I opposed the Iraq war at first (vehemently), I have eventually come around to the position that a war to remove Saddam's regime and set up a free and peaceful Iraq in its place would ultimately have been morally justified, if it had been waged competently. But the hard work of building a functional nation was never the Bush Jr. Administration's goal: it was merely an after-the-fact rationalization. And so they didn't plan for it properly. And so they failed. Ideology leads people to ignore inconvenient facts, and when you ignore facts you fail. Always.
I want terrorism to be faught competently. The Republicans have proven they can't do it. When confronted with their failures, the Republicans are quick to change the subject, to try to redirect the blame to Democrats. "The Democrats just want to run and hide!" It's true, the Democrats haven't offered any better ideas. While the Republicans have been ripping the Constitution apart the Democrats have, with very few exceptions, been going along with it like cowards, because they are afraid of being branded unpatriotic. Of course, that's lose-lose for them; they ought to know by now that the Republicans will find an excuse to paint Democrats as unpatriotic no matter what they do or say. That's basically all the Republicans have left to offer: "We're bad, but the Democrats would be worse!" It's kind of hard for me, at this point, to see how they possibly could have been any worse.
Where are real leaders when we need them?
But are the Democrats any better?
This essay is my long-winded way of telling you to tell everybody you know to go vote Democrat in November. But I want you to understand why I'm saying that. I'm no fan of the democrats. I'm not saying they're good leaders, or even that they're the lesser of two evils. I'm saying that it's not healthy for America for the government to be completely controlled by one political party, as it has been for the last four years. And the last four years has shown us, vividly, why it is not healthy.
This is much bigger than the question of whether W is an idiot or not, or whether the current administration is competent or not. Our constitution, our rights, and our system of checks and balances are all in need of repair. If we let the Republicans keep a monopoly on power for another two years they can do still more damage to it. Breaking their majority in Congress is merely an emergency stopgap solution; the corruption in Congress runs very deep, and they are not being held accountable. So in the long term, we need to do a lot of housecleaning of our federal government. But until we do, the ideal situation is to have the government divided. If the Congress is divided 50-50, neither party will be able to force stupid laws through just by voting along party lines, and maybe Congress will stop acting as a rubber-stamp department for the out-of-control executive branch. It's not a sure thing, but it's the best chance we have right now.