So thoroughly have modern Americans been immersed in the notion of "progress" that we seldom question its assumptions. We generally assume that our understanding, like our technology, improves over time. You can observe that fallacy in so many fields that one hardly knows where to start.
You may easily discover it in the field of theology, where the teachings of the Apostles and the Church fathers on Scripture and doctrine in the first few centuries of the Christian era count for virtually nothing in the minds of many modern non-thinkers, when compared to what the scholars of our time say about the same. You can find it in the field of law, especially constitutional law, wherein learned men and women assure us that the meaning of legal principles established in written law evolve and develop new meanings over time, giving us among other things our "living Constitution."
Indeed, it often seems that the reverse is true about our "progress" over time. The longer we talk and write and, presumably, study an issue, the less clear the principles involved therein become in our poor, weary minds. We have had more than 200 years, for example, to ponder the Bill of Rights. But as the current administration and its defenders have abundantly demonstrated, there seems less understanding and appreciation of our enumerated rights today than when the idea of a written bill of rights was something of a novelty. And this is nowhere more evident than among self-proclaimed "conservatives," who should be the defenders of our liberties as generally understood before, first liberals, and then "neocons" came along to make a prophet of George Orwell.
Take the First Amendment, for example. Or as the neo-conservative pundit William Kristol might say, "Take our First Amendment, please!" Mr. Kristol has not called for repeal of the amendment’s guarantee of free speech, mind you — not yet, anyway. He just calls opponents of Mr. Bush’s splendid little war in Iraq "irresponsible" for exercising that right. In fact, "irresponsible" is one of the kinder things he calls the war critics.
On a Sunday talk show on the Fox News network (where else?), Mr. Kristol suggested the Democrats in Congress, and presumably the growing number of Republican critics as well, should keep quiet about their concerns for "six or nine months" to give the President’s plan for a "surge" of 21,500 additional troops in Iraq time to work. Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, strongly implied what megamouth talk show host Rush Limbaugh has said openly — that many of the Democrats really want America to lose in Iraq.
And let us not overlook Washington’s "spotted" Newt, the irrepressible Mr. Gingrich, who suggested not long ago that we need to roll back some of our free speech guarantees to allow the government a greater freedom to monitor our communications. Now, I will admit that the modern understanding of the First Amendment freedoms is in some ways an improvement over the original understanding of at least some of the legislators in the early days of the Republic, who took the ban on abridging the freedom of speech or of the press to mean merely a prohibition of prior restraint, or censorship. They concluded that the federal government retained the power to punish publication of "seditious libel" after the fact. Hence, the passage of the Sedition Laws at the end of the 18th Century.
Still, consider how far we have come from Ben Franklin’s wise counsel that those who would "trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security." Consider how far our standards of liberty have fallen in just the fifty-odd years since President Dwight Eisenhower suggested that if security were the only concern, people might be better off in a prison than in a free society.
Think of what has happened in just the few years that America has endured the regime of George Bush and his calamitous combination of old Nixonian retreads and neo-conservative "visionaries." We have had a U.S.-led war of aggression against Iraq. We have secret prisons in Eastern Europe and the lame-duck Congress last fall passed the Military Commissions Act, codifying the Bush-Ashcroft-Gonzalez doctrine that the commander in chief has the inherent right to imprison, indefinitely and without the constitutional guarantees of due process, persons he or his surrogates label "enemy combatants." Indeed, the attorney general of the United States, the aforementioned Mr. Gonzalez, has expressly denied that our Constitution recognizes and affirms the right of habeas corpus.
The Bush administration has resorted to "extraordinary rendition" of some terrorist suspects for interrogation in foreign lands, including Syria, a county the United States has consistently condemned for its violation of human rights and for being itself a sponsor of terrorism. We have the same administration arrogating to itself the right to subpoena citizens’ financial records, monitor our international phone calls and open our mail without judicial warrant. Perhaps the Soviet Union never died, after all. Perhaps it is just being operated under new management from Washington.
So what are we doing in Iraq? Why, we’re "defending freedom," of course! Those who endured the endless chatter of the seemingly interminable pre-game show for the National Football Conference championship game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints last Sunday saw a segment showing how devastated New Orleans remains, as that city is still struggling to recover from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005. The weakness of the levees that collapsed before the surging flood waters had been reported upon for a decade, but Washington was still paying no attention to it when the walls burst and floods overtook New Orleans and other Gulf of Mexico communities. The Bush gang may have been too busy destroying targets in Iraq to have heeded the warnings from New Orleans.
And yet when you see the devastation that remains in New Orleans, you have to wonder about spending billions upon billions for the rebuilding of Iraq. Of course, our government may feel less responsibility for the welfare of people in New Orleans and Mississippi, since they are well within the territorial limits of the United States and not thousands of miles from our shores, where people have to learn the blessings of democracy if it kills them. Besides, money spent to rebuild New Orleans is wasteful spending by big government. And we all know how opposed Republicans are to "big government."
Yeah, right. Republicans have been embracing big government with zealous devotion for a long time now, especially when the affairs can be labeled exercises of national security. It’s not that Republicans really want fascism to come to America. It’s just that most of them have been AWOL in the defense of liberty for so long that when fascism does fully arrive, they can be counted on not to notice the difference.
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.