The first job of a citizen is to keep your mouth open
I'm flying a flag these days. The Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, America's flag -- OUR flag! I've strapped it to my '97 made-in-the-USA Ford Escort, and I'm zipping around town as proudly as anyone else in the red, white and blue, like some modern-day Patrick Henry on wheels.
As with so many others, I'm flying our flag out of an assertive, perhaps defiant pride -- for I am proud, damned proud, to be an American citizen, and, in this time of true woe and deep national trauma, I'll be damned to hell before I meekly sit by and allow this symbol of our nation's founding ideals -- "liberty and justice for all" -- to be captured and defiled by reactionary autocrats, theocrats, xenophobic haters, warmongers, America-firsters, corporatists, militarists, fearmongers, political weasels, and other rank opportunists.
Our flag is no piece of sheeting for authoritarians to hide behind as they rend our hard-won liberties in the name of "protecting" us from a dangerous world. We Americans are not that frightened. Nor is our flag some bloody rag to be waved by politicians hoping to whip us into such a lust for vengeance that they can turn our people's republic into a garrisoned state, armed to the teeth and mired in a quasi-religious war that George W. defines as "this crusade" to "rid the world of the evildoers." We Americans are not that blind.
Our flag is the banner of freedom seekers, risk takers, democracy builders, rebels, pioneers, mavericks, barnraisers, and hellraisers -- a liberty-loving people who are naturally suspicious of authority and able to detect that the real threat to our land of the free comes not from afar, but from within.
Our flag is made of strong democratic cloth, artfully designed and painstakingly stitched together over 225 years -- liberty by individual liberty, people's movement by people's movement. Our flag embodies a democratic continuum that connects us today to the pamphleteers and Sons of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the abolitionists and the suffragists, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, the populists and Wobblies, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
"The first job of a citizen is to keep your mouth open," wrote German Nobel Prize winner Gunther Grass. The Powers That Be are not interested in having a national conversation, but I believe we must push for one from the grassroots up. Open your mouth -- "Hey, I'm an American, red-blooded and true, and here's what that means to me; what do you think?"
Americans desperately need to talk -- about what our society is, where we're headed, what kind of future we're creating for the next generation. Our fellow citizens are eager to engage. Early one morning, as I sat in a coffee shop writing two days after the terrorist assault, a fellow in a suit and tie stepped over to me. I didn't know him, but he said that he occasionally read my weekly columns and felt the need to acknowledge something: "I mostly don't agree with you," he blurted, "but I guess today, we're all Americans."
Indeed. Let's talk.
What astonishes me is not that the Powers That Be would want to stifle any talk that doesn't assert lock-step "patriotism," but that so many weak-kneed progressive leaders have counseled hiding our light under a bushel and withdrawing from the noble field of protest.
For example, an internal memo to Sierra Club leaders mewed, "We strongly need to avoid any perceptions that we are being disrespectful to President Bush." Hello? Protest is not disrespectful. It is the essence of American democracy, of America itself, and it is especially essential when a muddleheaded guy like George W. sits in the President's chair, totally dependent on the military establishment and corporate elite, thrusting our sons and daughters (theirs won't have to go) into an unlimited and secretive world war against terrorists supposedly entrenched in 60 nations, while simultaneously rushing to Congress with a package of 51 "emergency" antiterrorism bills to put some convenient crimps and cuts in America's Bill of Rights.
If we don't protest now, when will it matter? Yet the Sierra Club's memo-writer urges that we shut our mouths for fear of being deemed unpopular: "Now is the time for rallying together as a nation," he whimpered. Excuse me, but rally together for what, exactly?
How to Destroy Democracy
Terrorists have no ability to destroy our democracy -- but we do, simply by surrendering it, by keeping our mouths shut while it is dismantled by the authorities.
"America is being tested," bellowed the political and media establishments after September 11. True, but the test is not merely of whether the military has the brute force to smite our enemies, though this will certainly continue to be mightily tested in the far-flung, open-ended offensive drawn up by the Bushites. The real test is going to be of our democratic resolve. Will we citizens settle for life in a guarded and gated corporate empire?
"Everything has changed," we're told. No, it hasn't.
This pitiful wail by politicians and pundits went up as quickly as the Trade Center towers fell, and now it's the prevailing excuse used by those who tell us that to defend freedom we must surrender freedoms, to stop terrorist assaults on our democracy we must militarize our society.
Republicans are the harshest of the newly assertive autocrats in Washington, but Democrats, too, were quick to accept the post-September 11 conventional wisdom that liberties now must be set aside: "We need to find a new balance between freedom and security," asserted House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt just days after the attack, adding ominously: "We are in a new world."
No, we're not. We're in the exact same world. It has just come a lot closer to us, that's all, introducing itself to us in a terrible and personal way that we've basically been uninformed about until now. Yet we are not some backward, powerless people who must flee to our caves.
The adjustment we most need to make is not in our freedoms, but in our understanding of who else is in this big world with us and what it will take for all of us to get along. At a minimum, getting along will require that our nation's political and economic policies begin to reflect our people's democratic values -- economic fairness, social justice, equal opportunity for all.
In practical terms, this means putting America on the side of the poor and repressed people of the world, rather than continuing to stand alongside the thugs, dictators, corporatists, and monarchists who prosper on the misery of an increasingly angry Third World majority.
Far from building on these strengths, however, the Powers That Be are appealing solely to our nativism and pessimism, demanding that we withdraw into Fortress America and meekly allow them to deal secretively, paternalistically, and cataclysmically with an uppity world.
But it's our world, too, that they plan to up-end. The same old pols like Dick Cheney, Trent Lott, and Denny Hastert -- who built their political careers on the hackneyed line that the ten scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" -- are now squinting into the TV cameras and, with tight-lipped greasy smiles, saying, "We're here to protect you."
A mess of the "protection" they have in mind is collected into a hellish handbasket that they've labeled the "Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act." Yes, believe it or not, they've cynically constructed an acronym that spells: PATRIOT.
Clever, what? T.J., Jimmy Madison, Old Ben, Tom Paine, the original George W., and all the other founding patriots would gag on this piece of privacy-invading, liberty-denying nastiness. It brings back racial profiling with a vengeance; it makes wiretapping and Internet surveillance a free-for-all; it authorizes the indefinite detention of anyone "suspected" of any terrorist connection, without the nicety of charging them with anything, and denies them any appeal; it requires your bank to spy on you and to report to federal agents any "unusual transaction" (such as depositing or withdrawing as little as $5,000); it leaves it to the FBI, CIA, and other bastions of authoritarianism to define terrorist activity (protest at a WTO meeting?) ... and so much more.
If only that were the end of it. They also propose to "unleash" the CIA. (When, exactly, was it leashed, and to what?) They want our super-snoop agency to be officially authorized to assassinate people -- just like the terrorists do. They want it to return to what George Bush the Elder calls the "dirty business" of espionage, which is to say hiring "unsavory people" as CIA agents to do what needs to be done (Daddy Bush would know about unsavory, for he was V.P. when our CIA financed Osama bin Laden).
Now along comes Bush the Younger with a dream-come-true for those who yearn for more police power in our lives. It's called the Office of Homeland Security, and he's given it powers to match the National Security Agency and a vague mandate that he glibly defines as "to make sure that anybody who wants to harm America will have a hard time doing so."
The OHS was created by executive fiat to be a White House agency. It will have no congressional oversight of its activities or budget. In addition, Bush has unilaterally decided to establish a "Homeland Defense Command" within the Pentagon, empowering the military to gain a foothold over civilian authority and to act against U.S. citizens at home.
If this in not enough democracy-quashing firepower, Congress is also contemplating approval of a longtime civil-liberties no-no: the national ID card. Welcome to your "new world." It's really no big deal, says Republican subcommittee chairman George Gekas, who notes that something already exists that you might not know about: the National Standard for the Driver's License/Identification Card.
It might be one thing if any or all of these measures would actually stop terrorism, but even their proponents won't make such a claim.
It's being done not because it makes sense, but simply because there is an urgency to "do something," or at least appear to do something, and the easiest thing to do in a national crisis is always to reach for the hammer and cuffs to shut down everything from people's movements to their mouths. Well, after all, say the politicians and media with near unanimity, we're at war.
No, we're not. Yes, our forces are in "hot pursuit" of the maniacal fiends who, in a grotesque perversion of Islam (practicing a violent, puritanical, fringe version called Wahhabism), have exploded our buildings, our people, and our comforting sense of isolation from an unsettled world's religious wars. And yes, George W. has declared us to be "at war" with these murderous zealots.
Good for him -- except, of course, that a president has no authority to declare war. This is more than a Constitutional nicety; it is basic to the rule of law, which in turn is an absolutely essential underpinning of democracy -- in fact, the founders took on King George III in the Revolutionary War so we'd be governed by law, not kings.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, never one to contend for a civil-liberties award, has been especially pushy in his assertion of martial-law-style executive power, stamping his tiny feet and demanding at one point that Congress pass his police-powers package "by next week."
Likewise, the media, Congress, and the White House have clamored to censor those who have dared to dissent or diverge from the orthodox line. For example, when comedian Bill Maher expressed some unapproved thoughts on television, President Bush's mouthpiece Ari Fleischer said: "Americans ... need to watch what they say, watch what they do."
Any time the authorities lock arms and assert that "everything has changed," grab your copy of the Bill of Rights and rush to the barricades.
So What Can We Do?
What should we ask our government to do?
On the military front, the United States has no choice but to go after the bastards. Terrorism ain't beanbags. The ruthless mass murderers smacked our nation and all of civilization right in the face, and turning the other cheek only means we'll get smacked again.
There's no subtlety to their agenda. However, there must subtlety be to ours. The trick in smacking back is in knowing who "they" are, where they are, and particularly in smacking them without slaughtering the innocents they hide among. This requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, and it requires a long, patient siege (years) that is dependent more on creative diplomacy and old-fashioned gumshoe espionage than on high-tech, made-for-CNN missile shots. Bringing them to justice in a court of law would be ideal, and we should seek their capture, but these are suicidal, doctrinaire diehards, so blood will flow.
With blood and billions of our dollars involved, we have a right to demand a new honesty from Washington. For starters, they should start telling us the truth about the elites of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, who are the primary source of brains, money, and recruits for this Wahhabi jihad.
Leaders of these nations, however, are the oil buddies, business partners, and longtime Middle Eastern enforcers of America's corporate empire, so Bush, Cheney & Co. won't cop to the fact that the murderous theocratic movement now tormenting us is based in the very nest where their corporate chums have found such comfort and profit. Will Bush go there to "smoke 'em out of their holes"?
How about a little honesty, too, on money laundering? Bush has pointed furiously at foreign banks, but how about the multibillion-dollar networks of secret accounts in the "private banking" departments of such U.S. giants as Citigroup (a major Bush campaign contributor)?
It's on the home front, however, where we citizens must be most forceful in holding Washington accountable. The looters are loose. Not common looters rampaging through the streets, but corporate looters rampaging through the Congress.
They are grabbing for bills and billions that have zero to do with combating terrorism or rebuilding our economy -- the Star Wars missile-defense shield, for example, was zapped through a week after the attack, even though a box-cutter defense shield would be much more useful. Then came "fast track" authority to ram more global trade deals down the throats of the world's people -- pushed by lobbyists and Bush's odious trade chief in the name of patriotism!
The looters also want huge bailouts, massive corporate tax cuts, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, slashing-capital gains taxes (80 percent of this break goes to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans), and a host of other thefts.
Instead of aiding the looters, Washington should launch a major reinvestment in grassroots America. First, stop the firing. Why should airlines get $15 billion from taxpayers while axing 100,000 employees? The same with hotel chains, car-rental corporations, and other industries that now demand bailouts. Yes, these corporations are hard-hit, but so is America. To stimulate the economy, put these bailout funds into the hands of working families all across America.
Second, strengthen our national security by making major, long-overdue public investments in our infrastructure -- schoolhouses, hospitals, roads and bridges, parks, etc. Add to this a new nationwide project to reconnect our population corridors with high-speed passenger trains. This makes so much sense that even the tightly bowtied, right-wing, anti-government scribe George Will has embraced it. Then it's way past time we expanded renewable energy sources to wean us off oil, which weds the Bush-Cheney crowd to the Saudi royal family and their ilk.
Third, to deal with the recession: Instead of cutting income taxes, cut payroll taxes; raise the minimum wage; extend health care, unemployment benefits, and day care. All of this spreads money, like fertilizer, to the grassroots economy, rather than piling it up inside global banks.
Finally, we must demand openness and full public discussion on everything from war and peace to restrictions on our liberties.
Since September 11, I find a deep hunger among most Americans for serious discussion (including hearing dissent). This gives me great hope in such a horrible time. Contrary to the media's portrayal of Bellicose America, the people I've encountered in meetings, in cafes and bars, and elsewhere (including the majority of people writing letters-to-the-editor in papers from coast to coast) are expressing anger, grief, and shock -- but they oppose the hush-hush and rush-rush we're getting, and they want us to talk and think as a democratic community.
The better part of patriotism is for us to raise hard questions, put out inconvenient information, assert our values, and appeal to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
More of Jim Hightower's writing can be found in his monthly newletter, The Hightower Lowdown. For more information, see www.jimhightower.com