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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Regimes - Three Different Ones

For those reading the news this weekend, the elections in Russia and Venezuela are likely very puzzling developments. Final returns aren't in yet, but it appears citizens in those countries appear to have voluntary walked into the polling booth and exercised their current rights to strengthen the power of individuals over them who really care about none of their rights.

In the case of Russia, Vladmir Putin established new rules which blocked many independent party candidates from filing for election to parliamentary seats, preventing any coalition of parties from putting a brake on the concentration of power being accumulated by his United Russia party. While Putin has publicly stated he will honor current Russian limits on consecutive terms, speculation is rampant in Russia and elsewhere that only his party's candidate has any chance at winning the next Presidential election and any such winner might very quickly resign and allow the party to reappoint Putin to fill the position. No consecutive term violation, no chance of surrendering power to other parties, GENIUS. (#1)

In the case of Venezuela, current President Hugo Chavez put a referendum on the ballot to grant himself power to retain the Presidency as long as his party maintains control One story, typical of the coverage of the Venezuelan vote, is particularly telling (bold emphasis added): (#2)

Three exit polls showed the anti-American leader won by between six and eight percentage points in a vote where turnout was low, the two sources said. If his victory is confirmed, the referendum vote on a raft of reforms would allow Chavez -- in office since 1999 -- to run for reelection indefinitely, control foreign currency reserves, appoint loyalists over regional elected officials and censor the media if he declares an emergency.

Hmmmmm. A leader appointing cronies throughout the entire local / national government chain and reserving dictatorial rights for "future emergencies" all approved by an apathetic voting public. That sounds familiar.

One word that comes to mind after reading about the tactics of Putin and Chavez is regime, a word Americans usually hear in contexts intended to convey illegitimacy, corruption or brutality upon anti-democratic governments or governments not aligned with what we perceive as our current interests.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Bill of Wrongs - The Executive Branch's Assault on America's Fundamental Rights by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. In all honesty, my only real motivation in buying the book was partly a combination of trying to show one last bit of support for one of my favorite political "arthurs" and hoping it would have more of Molly's more typical one-of-a-kind observations on the absurdity of politics.

The book is nothing like anything else in her canon, either written alone or with Dubose. There's no aw shucks prose, no stories of state politicians so stupid they'd have to be watered twice a day if they were any dumber, etc. Instead, the book provides details on eight very specific incidents in the last six years in which special interest groups or the government itself ignored and / or abused the most basic rights of those they opposed or used and abused the powers of government to further their efforts.

The stories range from:

* the challenges of speaking truth to power, or the hypocrisy of "free speech zones" in a democratic country where citizens can be arrested for "trespassing" on public property for holding an anti-Bush sign on a motorcade route

* harassing the press to help harass the citizenry AND the press, or how one reporter was jailed for 199 days by FEDERAL officials for not providing his videotape of an incident in which a tail light of a CITY vehicle paid for by federal dollars was broken by protesters, protestors the federal government had its eye on but who committed no federal crimes

* the Dover, Pennsylvania battle over Intelligent Design, or how the attempt to impose religious-inspired teaching in high school biology classes provided a bunch of conservative Christian zealots in a small town the opportunity to abuse both the Establishment clause and the first amendment by suing for the materials of reporters who accurately reported the conduct of the pro-ID officials in public school board meetings.

* the practice of material witness detentions, or how our government is detaining citizens indefinitely to extract testimony from said citizens AGAINST said citizens for alleged crimes the government is not required to divulge (read that again, several times, slowly)

* national security letters, or how the government can compel testimony from citizens while eliminating their legal right to tell ANYONE, including their own lawyer, of the request and how the FBI pursued a particularly abusive NSL case against librarians, paralyzing their ability to contact even their own Senators and Representatives about the abuse until the FBI dropped the case -- only after Congress renewed the Patriot Act and NSL provisions without seeing confirmation of its abuse

* the abuse of habeas corpus protections, or how our government has illegally kidnapped, detained and tortured citizens of OUR ALLIES as part of our war on terror

Keep in mind, each of these stories is not an analysis of how CONCEPTUALLY the flawed Patriot Act and other similar measures COULD BE used to infringe the rights of Americans. These are concrete examples of actual cases.

In the course of the book, Ivins and Dubose make three almost off-hand points that after reading the entire book, outline the most important points of the book and our current situation. In the discussion of the crackdown on protests in sight of the Presidential bubble, the arguments around the original Alien and Sedition Act are recounted and they quote law professor Leonard Levy, who stated that the concept of seditious speech is alien to American democracy because "it only exists where people are subjects rather than sovereigns and their criticism implies contempt of their master."

In the chapter about the detained videographer, they recount the fact that Dick Cheney, as Ford's chief of staff in 1974, suggested getting a search warrant for the papers of reporter Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of the existence of the Pentagon Papers. Cheney had qualms about the warrant though... Well, one qualm. "Will we get hit with violating the 1st amendment to the constitution?" As Ivins and Dubose note, Cheney was not concerned that such an action WOULD be a violation of the 1st amendment, only that they might suffer flack from pursuing it. This is Cheney's strategic viewpoint expressed within months of the resignation of a President disgraced and nearly impeached for identical actions.

In several of the chapters, the examples detail how federal officials operate through local police and law enforcement agents to accomplish their illegal goals while keeping federal fingerprints off the actual activity, making it difficult for citizens trapped in the web to understand their legal position, their rights or even what the charges are. The phrase "Kafka-esque" comes up often in the text and yet doesn't really do the situations justice.

The clear-cut pattern of behavior and obfuscation of actions taken makes it very clear the actions taken are not the result of amateurs or incompetence, but the result of a very coherent, well-formulated and frighteningly effective plan that clearly has the support of a critical mass of adherents who fear their fellow Americans as much as they do "them." It's easy to argue they fear us MORE than "them" cuz we're here, right in front of them every day.

Regime. It's a word we should be using a lot more right here in America. As Bill of Wrongs makes clear, there are many in our government who reject the idea of the people as sovereign and the government as subject and aim to establish precisely the opposite relationship as the preferred state.

===========================

#1) http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071202/ap_on_re_eu/russia_putin_s_future

#2) http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20071202/ts_nm/venezuela_referendum_dc