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Posts from — August 2015

Weeding the Yard

Weeding the Yard

I had moved into a new house in March, and by that weekend, somehow, the first prescient breezes of mid-August were stirring the evening air. The list of things to do was growing longer as I checked each one off, and before I knew what was happening, the back yard had been overrun by an army of weeds that now stood a meter tall from fence to fence. An incidental nuisance, barely noticed out of the corner of one’s eye, had emerged from the periphery and accelerated without warning, choking off the everyday corridors and usurping what had been free, open space until the problem seemed all but insurmountable. The sudden awareness of this brought a sense of uneasiness, a worry that there might be other alien forces, hiding in the light of day, preparing to do the same—to advance without warning, to invade, to take over.

The same week that I finally noticed what was going on in the back yard, an article came out in The New York Times exposing the telecom giant AT&T’s “extreme willingness to help” the National Security Agency (NSA) appropriate the emails and phone records of millions of U.S. citizens as part of its mass domestic surveillance program, which began under George W. Bush shortly after 9/11 and has expanded during President Obama’s administration, a program of warrantless search and seizure conducted without reasonable cause or due process in stark violation of Fourth Amendment protections. Verizon, too, had been instructed to turn over the “metadata” of the phone calls of millions of Americans by a FISA court order that had been classified as secret. In 2014, this overreaching collection of data by the NSA on the foreign front had led the German government to cancel its contract with Verizon.

In standing up to abuses of power by government agencies and corporations, there may not be much one can do, but one can do something. The week that The New York Times articles came out, I closed my AT&T account with an email explaining my reason. I was “voting with my wallet” by refusing to patronize a company that colludes in the violation of basic democratic rights. It would be naive, of course, to expect CEOs to refuse to comply with a court order, since doing so would put them at risk of imprisonment. As Voltaire notes, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” The needed solution here has to come from Congressional action based on the courage and resolve to protect American constitutional rights even in the age of terrorism. By its actions, however, AT&T had shown that it had no place in my world. It had become a weed, and it had to go.

The back yard of America is no longer one that I recognize. Global companies operate as sovereign nations while government looks the other way. In the years of my youth, the idea of a secret American court issuing secret orders granting the government unchecked authority to violate the privacy of millions of Americans would have been unthinkable, a dystopian fantasy along the lines of George Orwell’s chilling novel, 1984. It is distressing to witness Constitutional guarantees being flouted in the name of national security; to be part of a decimated middle class that has to choose between necessities in the wealthiest nation on the planet; to read headlines of gun violence escalating every day on both sides of the law; to watch in disbelief as Presidential candidates give flippant non-answers to serious questions from the media and are allowed to get away with it; to cling to one’s faith in the democratic process while obstructionist Congressional leaders invoke religion and malign intellect as justifications for hatred and the abrogation of civil liberties; to have to stand by while statesmanship is reduced to demagoguery and pettiness and pandering, to wonder if, at this hour in our national history, anything can be done to clear out the rampant overgrowth of strident ignorance and short-sightedness and posturing.

During U.S. campaign seasons, one notices that every candidate is promising to “fight for” this or that good and just cause, which leaves one wondering why so much fighting for good and just causes is necessary in a nation that never stops touting its greatness. The truth, the confession implicit in these political promises, is that America is no longer what it used to be, not by a long shot, and hasn’t been for some time. The weeds of self-interest, obstructionism, violence, complacency, consumerism, and fear, which have been growing at least since the end of the second World War, have choked off the very way of life that leaders at every level of government are sworn to protect and ensure. Each year, it seems, the weeds take over more of the yard.

This has been gradual, a steady encroachment that accelerated after the horrific events of the morning of 11 September, 2001, when fear surged through the psyche of America and opened the way to a reactive radicalization of the assumptions underlying legitimate national self-interest. An adversarial relationship, legislatively formalized in the so-called Patriot Act was set up between safety and civil liberties. Conservative elements sought to close the loopholes of risk by granting the government unprecedented and unconstitutional powers to intrude on the privacy of American citizens in order to identify potential threats early and move preemptively against them. This is the paradigm within which American political leaders of both parties over the past near decade and a half have made and supported sweeping decisions that authorize the abuse of power in the name of national security. The paradigm, like all paradigms, comes with a price. And where that price requires the violation of clearly stated constitutional rights and protections, it is too high. In such an America, the fight against terrorism has become a kind of terrorism in itself, one at least as dangerous to democratic ideals and values as the more conspicuous sort.

This past week, I managed to get the back yard under control. The weeding is done, for the most part, and the yard is once again spacious and accessible, though I’ve noticed that the work is never done once and for all. Little by little, unnoticeably at first, the weeds return, making it clear that preserving a free and open back yard demands a daily vigilance and the wisdom to deal with problems before they get out of hand. Weeds are, in a sense, single-minded; left to themselves, they would overtake the house and render it unlivable. Having seen what they can do, from now on I mean to keep an eye out the window and tend the yard as soon as it needs tending. What a victory it will be when America, land that I love, does the same.

August 30, 2015   Comments Off on Weeding the Yard