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Arbitrary and secretive use of power--has it always been thus?

by proximity1 Thu May 25th, 2006 at 04:06:39 PM EST

 Questions to the gallery ( in aid of my avoiding erroneous pictures of US political history in a diary I am writing up.)

  The diary concerns these essential points--

  In it I seek to argue that there are two very important aspects in which the Bush administration represents one of the most radical and dangerous departures from ordinary American political practice.  Second, it's an appeal for Europeans and their governments to recognize this state of affairs and do two things in response: 1) offer themselves as counter-examples to the American public and its government and 2) speak up and out about the dangerousness of these features of Bush's regime and what they mean for liberal democracies in the old-fashioned sense of liberal democracies--i.e. open societies based on the rule of law as administered through transparent and accountable institutions.

 So, what are the two main dangerous departures I have in mind?

  More below the fold --


  One is that the Bush administration represents, if not an unprecedented break with the practice of government by lawful and open institutional means, his is at least one of the worst examples of the replacement of institutional government by arbitrary and, thus, personal unchecked, non-institutional power that the US has seen since, well, since when, does it seem, in your opinion?

  One of the essential features of democracy, I'll argue--and perhaps the least well appreciated among too many Americans--is that healthy democratic government requires regular, formal, institutional means, and not government by fiat and whim.  This is because democratic rule must be regular, predictable and accountable; law and policy must be developed by open and accountable means. That means that institutions--and the elected representatives or their appointed officers who people them must fulfill their due role in the process.  Without it, the system's legitimacy is undermined or completely forfeited.

  Of course, the presidency is an institution and it's (typically) occupied by a duly-elected official.  But, when the president takes upon himself the prerogatives of various other peer branches of government, the authority of which was deliberately intended to serve as a check upon one-man rule, then the proper institutional functioning of the government is necessarily corrupted with potentially disastrous consequences if not soon corrected, if the proper authority is not soon restored to working order.

  The other aspect in which Bush has broken so starkly with what is at least recent modern practice is in the vastly more secretive operation of government generally.  While Clinton reversed the previous secretive tendencies of the first President Bush, ordering that things were to be made public unless there was a compelling reason to classify them as secret, George W. Bush has reversed this, making everything classified secret unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

In each of these--the arbitrary personal exercise of power rather than institutional; and the excessive secrecy-- the Bush administrations represent one of the most dangerous and direct attacks on the foundations of open, democatic government that the nation has, perhaps ever, seen.  

  Thus, by these measures, Bush's much-repeated claims to be a champion of democracy at home and abroad are clearly discredited and not to be believed.  By the objective measure of his practices of arbitrary, secretive rule, he makes his one of the worst, least democratic administrations.  He is, indeed, one of democracy's most flagrant opponents for a leader of a supposedly modern democratic nation.

  On with some questions:

  I premise my diary with a look at pre-World War II American political life, in which I picture a public which is far, far less ideologically driven and motivated.  One in which the public took little notice of the ideological profiles of the Republicans and Democrats, indeed, in which these two parties were ideologically far less distinct.  Instead, my picture presents the average voter as interested, if at all, in the classic "bread and butter" issues which conventional press and school text-books relate as the general prevailing set of interests.  Are taxes insupportable?  Are the roads maintained?  Do the schools educate?  Is there an economy in which businesses and farms can prosper?  These sorts of issures and not "Who is is "defense" candidate? "  "Which party is soft on Communism?"  "Which one can be trusted to fight international terrorism?" etc.

  My thesis is that this level of partisan ideological divide is something that has arisen particularly in the wake of World War II --with the obsession for "containment of Communism", the McCarthy red-baiting and all that went with it.

  Does all of this square with your views the pre-war American public? of less ideologically interested people?  

 Should I, need I refer to historical campaigns of the mid-1800s to mid-1900s in order to show what sort of issues were the focus of electoral campaigns?  The gold standard in the 1890s?  The Spanish-American war and the relations with Spanish carribbean?  The farm tariffs and issues of the early Progressive Party of the 1920s?  Or, is all that superfluous?  Or, is it essential to the story in your view?

  In brief, have Americans always been highly ideological? Always deeply interested in the theoretical part of politics in your view of it?  And, again, have they always--or generally-- been so deeply divided?  

  I'm not posing these question in the form of a poll--(unless some think that is better or needed, if so, then in that case, maybe I shall. We'll see how this goes.)

  Later, I'll try and develop the European aspect of these issues and how Europe can or might act as a counter-weight to these trends which I see as very dangerous.

 

Display:
the USA and its relationship to Europe, you'd have to go a lot further back, to where Britain, France, Spain, West Africa and even Russia were important influences and antagonists. Those relationships still echo today.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 04:44:49 PM EST

 Okay, thanks.

  But how, in your opinion, are those aspects essential in understanding the points I want to raise about Bush's arbitrary power and Europe as a potential counter-example and resistant to it?

  Are the older relations you mention vital to that understanding, and vital to the picture I would like to present?

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 04:48:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
my off-the-cuff to Migu was to you also.

My main point was that US driven globalization is fundamentally different from colonialization - not least because they were unleashed on the world at entirely different stages in the evolution of the noosphere.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 06:06:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I wonder what the Bush administration needs to do for European governments to see it as a dangerous rogue nation to be contained rather than as an ally. China, Russia and Latin America already do. Maybe an attack on Iran outside of international law would do it?

I think part of the problem is that such a change of attitude would be a huge shock for Europe, which is stil not fully recovered from the fall of the iron curtain. It would force Europe to stand on its own on the world scene in a way that it hasn't had to since before WWII. NATO would implode. The EU core would hold but possibly not the periphery. Things could only get worse once a break between the US and the EU becomes explicit. A lost of what the US has been doing undercover in Europe over the past few years might be exposed. It would be really ugly. The US would sulk and turn at once more aggressive and isolationist. There would be the potential for an economic recession simply on the basis of straining the strong ties between the American and European economies. There might be serious divestments, a run on the dollar...

In my mind, but then again I am a dangerous extremist when it comes to this, the US has been a rogue state since 2002 and a failed state since Katrina. I can't imagine that European intelligence and diplomacy are not aware of this. They are probably in denial, suffering from cognitive dissonance. "Say it ain't so!"

But I ramble.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 05:10:07 PM EST
Perceptive, more like.

The 'American Dream' is just that. A dream, which also Europe bought into. Globalization is largely an American invention, and is fundamentally different from Colonialization, at which Europe has been an expert, but now accepts as discredited expertise.

Colonialization, however exploitative it was, did allow for cross fertilization. Why is curry the favourite dish of the English?

While colonialization was certainly flag-flying, it was also pragmatic. In contrast, globalization is essentially occupation - the non-pragmatic imposition of values upon other cultures. The US is the cuckoo in the planetary nest.

On home turf, the American Dream has reached its logical nadir. In a winner-take-all motivational culture, the ultimate taboo has now been breached. Even elected representatives now say 'we are the winners, and to winners belong the spoils'

America, IMHO, is finished. It will slowly collapse in on itself to become a white dwarf. There is NO rescue. Europe, I don't know - perhaps the peripheral states will create biodiversity and ensure survival of the whole for a while (some generations).

China is so fucking huge.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 06:00:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 How close can one stand to a collapsing "White dwarf" without getting "singed"?, I wonder.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge
by proximity1 on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 11:41:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Colonialization, however exploitative it was, did allow for cross fertilization. Why is curry the favourite dish of the English?

hehe, true indeed!

why is english the language of business in india, and so strong in africa?

the brits came the closest to planetary domination of any colonising power.

it was military- but it was also fair-play (in concept and theory), pragmatic, mercantile and organisation-rich.

as well as arrogant, hypocritical, often nonsensical, and ultimately doomed to failure.

i just don't see america succeeding in world domination, even with coca cola and nukes.

i think their geo-isolation, mongrel genes and tendencies to theocracy conspire against this happening.

the centre has not held...american corporations have 'gone global' and enrich themselves and the despots they sustain, and largely do not pay into the american tax base to help improve social services and infrastructure.

and if iraq is anything to go by, they couldn't organise their way out of a paper bag...

sorry wchurchill!


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 02:32:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In my mind, but then again I am a dangerous extremist when it comes to this, the US has been a rogue state since 2002 and a failed state since Katrina.

a rogue state longer than that perhaps; a failed state since Katrina is hard to deny entirely.  but in a country as big as the US "failed" can be regional and/or race and class encoded.  the System still works for large numbers of people.  mail gets delivered, the police eventually show up when you call and generally don't demand a bribe or steal your stuff (depending on your race and immigration status and n'hood etc).  the phones work, the power stays on 24x7 -- when it doesn't it's news not bia.  the trains don't run on time though :-)

the questionable legitimacy of US elections is a major component of the failed-state question and the failure of media and mainsteam pols to deal with the festering issues (Diebold, Sequoia et al, plus the long litany of  voting discrepancies and fiddles over the last sveral election cycles) is imho a symptom of FSS (failed state syndrome).  I think a state can be "sick" w/o yet being 100 pct failed (as in Darfur for example, now that is fullblown fss).  and a sick state might recover.  even now.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 06:01:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There was a great deal of political activism in the US before the WWII. The great SF dockers' strikes come to mind. It nearly crippled the nation and sent the powerful into panic mode. Or the Molly Maguires in the 1800's. Anti-communist propaganda existed before 1917 in the States. It's no wonder many members of big business both in the US and GB openly sympathized with Nazism. Nazism was the last bastion against Bolshevism which was very much a perceived domestic threat in the US long before WWII. McCarthyism in this context appears the result of a longterm process. Present-day McCarthyism is simply more refined and far more deadly.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 05:56:23 PM EST
 These are the sort of observations I was looking for.

 So, then, in your opinion, speaking of, if it is possible to do so, an admittedly not-strictly-real "average American" between, say, 1800 and 1948, were they rather consistently prone or not prone to see, think and behave according to (whatever sort of) prevailing ideological currents of the times?---in your view?

  This is what I'm driving at getting folks' views on.

 By the way, see (soon) an appended "up-date" in the diary body above--in which I notify all that, in order to simply the process of opinion getting and giving, I simply take a page from Jérôme's style-book and (soon) post what I have written so far

 and invite opinion, criticism on that.

  Should'a done that in the first place, huh?

 ;^)

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 11:48:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Looking forward to your piece. I like the idea of collective contribution to one's arguments. Seems there are plenty of knowledgeable people here to offer constructive feedback.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Sat May 27th, 2006 at 03:34:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My thesis is that this level of partisan ideological divide is something that has arisen particularly in the wake of World War II --with the obsession for "containment of Communism", the McCarthy red-baiting and all that went with it.

Oh, we've been more divided (see 1861-1865), just along different lines.

Does all of this square with your views the pre-war American public? of less ideologically interested people?

Not at all.  Going on what I know of the Puritan colonizers, the founding fathers, the Civil War, the union movement of the early 20th Century, and first hand knowledge from my grandparents, I'd say we've been an ideologically interested people from the outset.  In fact, I think that in some decades following WWII, Americans have been frightenningly uninterested, and that very apathy created the opportunity for the extremists to obtain the position they have today.

Should I, need I refer to historical campaigns of the mid-1800s to mid-1900s in order to show what sort of issues were the focus of electoral campaigns?  The gold standard in the 1890s?  The Spanish-American war and the relations with Spanish carribbean?  The farm tariffs and issues of the early Progressive Party of the 1920s?  Or, is all that superfluous?  Or, is it essential to the story in your view?

Essential.

In brief, have Americans always been highly ideological? Always deeply interested in the theoretical part of politics in your view of it?  And, again, have they always--or generally-- been so deeply divided?

See above.  And if you have not, I suggest reading Howard Zinn's People's History of America.  

So, poemless, if it's not post-war commie-baiting that's to blame for our current situation, what is?

Answer: intellectual laziness, collective loss of brain power brought on by a poor education system, easily obtained forms of seemingly harmless instant gratification, and suburbs.  I think.  Being a product of this society, that's the best I can come up with at the moment.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 06:40:28 PM EST
intellectual laziness, collective loss of brain power brought on by a poor education system, easily obtained forms of seemingly harmless instant gratification, and suburbs.

You may be right here, yet these points also--question of degree, perhaps, but still--apply to other Western democracies than America.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 07:51:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course, but I do think our public education system falls behind those of other Western countries by more than a few degrees.  How many primary schools in France think they are succeeding so long as no kids get shot on the premises?  

Also, it appears to me that other Western countries are committing some of the sins of America as well, or are on the same path, to lesser degrees...  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 12:04:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 Thanks for this interesting and helpful comment!

  I put in my draft--ooops!-- I see it's in the text of the rough draft, but not in the diary above--a phrase which said, "apart from some episodes of notable exception" by which I had in mind just some of the episodes your reply points out and particularly, of course, that major "episode" known as the War 'tween the States".

  So, to cut to the chase, I'll now post the first portion as I have it--bear in mind that there are errors in it and it's just for that reason that I'm posting it, for comment, so that they can be edited.

 

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 11:55:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
when they start building bunkers is it time to get worried yet?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu May 25th, 2006 at 09:25:03 PM EST
bunker life is misunderestimated. next to gulags, it is sumptuous.

pass the cigars, please...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun May 28th, 2006 at 05:39:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Though I agree with poemless that America has always been an ideologically concerned nation, it seems to me there's a question about the scope and evolution of that concern. "Bread-and-butter issues" may be an understatement regarding pre-war political interests, but WWII was certainly the massive confirmation (in facts on the ground and in home and foreign perception) of America's place as a preponderant world power. Which in its turn enables, if not explains, the ideological themes you present as:

"Who is is "defense" candidate? "  "Which party is soft on Communism?"  "Which one can be trusted to fight international terrorism?"

In other words, America's concerns were certainly ideological, but internal (however morally universalist), at the time of the Civil War; ceased to be internal and moved into the American continental sphere with the Spanish-American War, into Europe with WWI, and finally into full-blown world power-play with WWII. It's the imperial crown that makes the difference, imho. And how well it fits. WWII was probably the high point, when it was about the right size. The fall of the Soviet Union set off a late imperial flare, a moment of hubris in which the crown seems larger and the nation's head big enough to fit it--but in fact it's slipping down sideways over one eye. (Another understatement.)

I'll stop there before giving you crown quotes from Richard II or "giant's clothes" quotes from Macbeth. All this to say that I think imperialism has to do with the subversion of American institutions of government. Imperialism having its military and its commercial-globalising sides, of course, and these united in what once could fairly be called the military-industrial complex, and is now more fairly called the Republican-crony complex.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 08:35:33 AM EST

  What you've outlined above is really a pretty fair synopsis of the argument as I had formulated it for myself.

  So, I must've communicated something right, in the diary note.

 Thanks!

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 11:59:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
First, a book citation:

Myths America Lives By

Second, some general remarks:

The US has been driven by ideology since before its founding. The various colonies were established to allow particular religious denominations to dominate. Rather then get along with their neighbors they congregated elsewhere.

Much of the ideology of the past 200 years has concerned the rise of power of the common man at the expense of the elite. This has had much success at the economic level, but rather less at the political level. The rich and powerful still tend to run things. They also determine what is taught in school, so labor history, for example, is almost non-existent. Here is a random example that I'm almost certain you have never heard of, Bisbee Deportation of 1917.

As for suppression of civil rights and the creation of a secret police things are not currently as bad as at several prior occasions. The two most notable are the Palmer raids before WWI (10,000+ Wobblies imprisoned) and the Japanese-American internment (100,000+ imprisoned).

What is worrisome this time is the scope of the internal spying, the disregard for the rule of law in the executive branch and, the lack of an effective counter balance either in congress or the judiciary branch. What is happening now looks a lot like what happened during the rise of the Nazis. Everything was done "legally" by passing new legislation until all rights had been suppressed. The power of the permanent military sector persists from one administration to another. Even those in government see no way to curb its strength. Just this week we have had front page stories about a military transport plane that is not needed continuing to be built and a plan to install a useless anti-missile system in Europe.

This is like a cancer growing which nothing can stop.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 10:01:18 AM EST

 Robert,

  Thanks for that comment and especially for the book recommendation which is now a priority reading interest to obtain.

  Very interesting, very useful.  I'd have probably missed it as I'm not reading The New York Review of Books enough lately.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 12:03:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 Well, HELL!:

  I can't post the first part now because I saved it in a format which isn't compatible (openable) in this terminal's Window's software--eventhough I deliberately tried to save it as a Windows 2000/XP format.

  So, I'll have to go back, re-save it to this little
usb-key and try again later in the week to post it.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 12:12:20 PM EST
so, Our neighbors' ignorance of windows, like our own, works against us on macs.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri May 26th, 2006 at 02:39:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 That could be true, too, if I were using a Mac.

 ;^(

 

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Sat May 27th, 2006 at 12:58:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yup and if you were on a mac you wouldn't be losing great chunks of reality off your drive!

jes' kidding, to each his own...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun May 28th, 2006 at 05:37:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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