Saturday, February 19, 2011

Democracy’s Prisoners of Conscience

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

The moral and political impoverishment of the Republican and Tea Parties manifest themselves almost daily. How do they respond to political assassination and multiple murders, facilitated by handguns, in Arizona? Celebrate the Second Amendment as a guarantor of American freedom and advocate arming the citizenry with concealed weapons. How do they respond to activist conservative courts that deem unconstitutional even modest health care reform designed to remedy evident injustices? Denounce the evils of government action and hail the decisions as a restoration of American freedom.
If conservatives were as steeped in American constitutional traditions as they believe, they would recognize the absurdity of the first position and the irrelevancy of the second. Freedom and democracy are at risk in the United States and elsewhere, but not because of the specter of gun control or mandatory health insurance (or tax increases, government spending to create jobs, reproductive rights, government regulation, or budget deficits).
The United States, in the first decade of the 21st century, already enjoys two wars to its credit, one patently illegal, the other a miserable failure whose needless, unjustifiable continuation renders it criminal. The country has inflicted great constitutional damage at home and killed tens of thousands of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq to prosecute these wars. On these questions, however, we hear no protests from the newly installed Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Nor do we hear anything other than bromides about national security from new Tea Party-backed members who prefer to treat the Pentagon budget, which sustains an unprecedented global empire, as more or less untouchable, despite vague pronouncements that everything is subject to fiscal review. Nor do we hear anything from the gun-toting public whose weapons supposedly protect our freedom from government malfeasance.
Once upon a time, a well-armed American citizenry might have opposed national military aggression and aggrandizement. In theory citizen militias resist tyranny at home and refuse imperial aggression abroad. No such convictions inform a professional mercenary army, which the United States deploys (patriotic protestations to the contrary notwithstanding), let alone individual gun owners. The Second Amendment, despite the ideologically-driven decision of an activist Supreme Court, is a collective rather than an individual right. Historically it did bear a certain relation to freedom—but no longer. America is a country awash in guns, but in the last fifty years this didn’t prevent, for example, either Vietnam or Iraq. The Second Amendment signifies nothing more than a consumer’s “right” to satisfy a socially dangerous fetish. The same can be said with opposition to health care, which supposedly relates to the much vaunted freedom of choice in the marketplace.
A democratic notion of freedom lies elsewhere. This is why the dominant responses—ranging from silence to cheerleading to assistance—to Julian Assange’s political persecution are so disturbing. The hysterical diatribes of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are to be expected; Rachel Maddow’s disgraceful, ignorant December 15 performance on David Letterman and Bill Keller’s nasty, self-serving calumny in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (a friend of the prosecutor brief for the likes of Eric Holder) less so. Of course, The New York Times loves to trumpet its own civic “virtue” and “responsibility,” which Keller does in the Assange piece, perhaps forgetting how the paper marched in lockstep with the Bush Administration’s campaign for war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Ironically, The Times and other media outlets are now in the process of establishing their own electronic “drop boxes” for the deposit of classified and confidential material.
As Assange pointed out in a 60 Minutes interview aired on January 30, WikiLeaks’s political and publishing activism fall well within the American political tradition of opposition to established authority. This seemed to escape the sensibility of 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, who chided Assange for his surprise that the United States would target him for retaliation for WikiLeaks’s exposés, deeming it natural and therefore somehow unproblematic rather than a further abuse of power. Despite America’s (unwarranted) indignation, WikiLeaks opposes illegitimate and abusive exercises of power—corporate or governmental—regardless of country. The idea is to create a more just society, to which freedom contributes, to which WikiLeaks contributes. And democratic freedom is a political phenomenon that finds its finest expression through action-in-concert. One might think here of recent events in Tunisia, abetted by WikiLeaks, or current events in Egypt
As for Assange, when the freedom of one is at stake, so is the freedom of everyone. It is the responsibility of democratic citizens to condemn and resist the state when it threatens not just a single citizen’s political rights, but the liberty of us all by focusing its efforts against a single citizen. This is what we owe Julian Assange and the citizen-and-prisoner of conscience that allegedly provided WikiLeaks with information, Bradley Manning. Eric Holder is doing his secretive best to dust off the Espionage Act of 1917, which Woodrow Wilson used to brutally suppress dissent during World War I, and make it work against Assange.
One democratic organization doing its best on behalf of Assange is Anonymous, a protean cross-state, transnational political force armed with a new set of civic skills to intervene effectively (in part, covertly) against corporate and state assaults on freedom. Like Assange and WikiLeaks, members of Anonymous risk arrest, prosecution, and prison as they resist and seek to reverse undemocratic practices and regimes
The United States does not enjoy a robust history of living up to First Amendment ideals. WikiLeaks has provided the country with another opportunity to match democratic promise with performance. No doubt Obama will lead the way in blowing it. With luck, he will be a one-term president. The time for the democratic left to oppose his renomination is here. He ought to pay the ultimate political price for his repeated democratic betrayals, both at home and internationally.

1 comment:

  1. One fact overlooked by those that believe guns and not the ACLU are needed for freedom is that Iraq has had a gun nut culture for decades. Almost every family had perfectly legal long guns. Today almost all have fully automatic assault weapons. Didn't do them too much good under Saddam. Doesn't do them too much good today.
    But everyone should send mail to

    Bradley Manning
    c/o Courage to Resist
    484 Lake Park Ave #41
    Oakland CA 94610

    Read more: