Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Narrative of Times that Try Men's Souls

Katrina vanden Heuvel used her post to The Notion, the blog site maintained by The Nation (which she happens to edit) to reproduce the following excerpt of a declaration:

We are lawyers in the United States of America. As such, we have all taken an oath obligating us to defend the Constitution and the rule of law…. We believe the Bush administration has committed numerous offenses against the Constitution and may have violated federal laws…. Moreover, the administration has blatantly defied congressional subpoenas, obstructing constitutional oversight …. Thus, we call on House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy to launch hearings into the possibility that crimes have been committed by this administration in violation of the Constitution…. We call for the investigations to go where they must, including into the offices of the President and the Vice President. -- American Lawyers Defending the Constitution

The post itself then went on to report on the rising trend of lawyers enjoining the Congress to take more decisive actions against the abuse of the Constitution by the Executive Branch.

In the context of the narrative of history, this makes for an interesting recapitulation. The first serious threat to Pervez Musharraf's assumption of carte blanche in his dictatorial rule of Pakistan came from the community of lawyers, provoked primarily by his attempts to interfere with the operations of the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the lawyers took to the streets; and things got ugly. Unfortunately, in the longer course of the narrative, Musharraf agreed to shed his uniform and to allow an election with a more serious semblance of opposition participation. The reason I chose the words of that last phrase so delicately, however, is that, for all intents and purposes, we are back to business as usual in Pakistan; and, once again, the rest of the world has other things to look at (thank you, Douglas Adams).

In this country the President does not wear a uniform; and the lawyers are not yet protesting in the streets, perhaps because the impact of the Executive on the Supreme Court has been too indirect to be perceived as interference. Thus, even if this statement and similar measures may set off some ripples of discontented consciousness, the fluid in which those ripples form will be too viscous for them to propagate very far. Even Al Gore has told the world basically to ignore President Bush and think forward to the administration that will be elected in November. Such a point of view would probably oppose my objection to those senators who feel that their time on the campaign trail is more important than time spent doing the "people's business" in Washington. However, that kind of chastisement is not enough to persuade me to change my position. Rather, I take it as evidence that Gore is no longer devoting many of his mental cycles to the problems of government and politics, probably because those cycles are being absorbed by the challenge of persuasion on a global scale.

That little joke by Tom Lehrer about allegiance being ruled by expedience goes beyond jibes at former Nazis. When we pay attention to the words we rattle off out of a sense of habit, we find that our allegiance is pledged to that republic symbolized by our flag. That republic is defined by a constitution grounded in laws: making laws (the Legislative branch), enforcing laws (the Executive branch), and deciding when laws have been violated and how violations should be punished (the Judicial branch). That grounding could not exist without the operational processes of those three branches of government, but we must not forget that those processes are there to serve a rule of law without which our republic would no longer be defined. In other words to appeal to needs for expedient implementation of those processes (as we saw in the logic behind the decision not to pursue impeachment proceedings) is to sacrifice our allegiance to our republic.

Perhaps this gets at why so many of our electorate seem so disenchanted. They may not be able to put it in the sort of words I have been concocting, but they are still smart enough to recognize when the machinery of their government is running roughshod over a pledge they have been making since childhood. They also recognize their own helplessness as they witness their most patriotic values being undermined. Hence my title: These are truly times that try men's souls. They are also times in which those who would oppose those souls realize that it is more expedient to narcotize them than to fight them overtly.

In the past the broken record in me tries to wrap up the argument with a conclusion that this is the world the Internet has made. However, this world was in the making long before the networking of computers was a gleam in anyone's mind. I suspect it would be fairer to say that this is the world that the "modern business school education," with its emphasis on the objective identification of goals and the selection of efficient "operators" to achieve them, has made. It is a mindset that was already beginning to emerge during the Second World War and was so entrenched in our national consciousness by the end of the century that any question of an alternative point of view was dismissed as ridiculous. In the past I have suggested that we have now succumbed to an addictive behavior; so I suppose the question is whether or not there is any "program" (Lord only knows how many steps) we can follow to pull out of that addiction. Perhaps Gore should be devoting some of his cycles to this problem, rather than falling back on a this-too-shall-pass attitude towards the mess in which we are all mired.

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