February 11, 2006

The Metaphor War

One of the recurrent pillars of the Bush administration's defense of its various infringements on constitutionally protected corners of American life is the theory of the so-called wartime presidency. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales cited this repeatedly in his recent congressional, uh, testimony. ("Testimony" is loose here: Gonzales refused to be placed under oath — gotta wonder why, don't you? or maybe you don't — and chairman Arlen Specter let him get away with it, over the thank-god objections of Russell Feingold, hereafter known as The Last Real Senator.)

This will be short and not all that sweet, because it's incredibly simple. Ladies and gentlemen, we are not at war. Officially speaking, that is. Legally speaking, that is. And in this context, legality is everything.

The constitution is abundantly clear on this: Congress — and only Congress — has the authority to declare war for the United States. The president cannot do it. The president can ask congress for a declaration of war, but he cannot produce one himself. Article I, Section 8 makes this plain. (It also makes plain Congress's prerogative to "make rules concerning capture on Land and Water," which leads me to wonder if maybe the administration's copy of the constitution left Section 8 out.)

Congress has not declared war. Congress has authorized the use of military force. But it has not declared war. Not on Afghanistan, not on Iraq. Until Congress declares it, the United States is not, officially, legally, at war.

And yet war is the talk of our lives. For more than four years — since 9/11, of course — we have felt as though, and talked as though, and in many cases acted as though, we are at war. American troops are deployed overseas (and redeployed, and redeployed again) for months at a time; they are fighting, they are wounded and dying. This is not imagination. There are well-organized entities who wish our citizenry harm. They have done our citizenry harm, and promise to do it again. In at least one case, they have declared war on us, as officially as they can. "Wartime" has entered common parlance as a way of describing the era we live in, especially among those of us in major urban concentrations: the coded alerts, the daily security shakedowns, the jolts of fear we feel in certain unavoidable circumstances: planes; subways; ferries; crowded streets near international icons. We think less in terms of whether than in terms of when. And in all likelihood we are right: we don't know what will happen, but the chances are grimly strong that something will — and that when it does it will be devastating.

War, in this context, is relevant to our contemporary understanding of ourselves. It is one of the dominant metaphors of our time, our state of mind. But it remains, in one sense, only that: a metaphor. It may be accurate; it may be defining; but it is still only that — legally. Which is to say that, legally, it has no standing.

So when the President, or the Vice President, or the Attorney General talk about the powers of a wartime president — and particularly when they talk about it in the context of justifying violations of existing US statutes, let alone Constitutional provisions — keep in mind that these words refer to nothing legally relevant. The President could, of course, ask Congress for a declaration of war, if he wished. I don't know why he hasn't. I can guess — I can imagine, for example, that it has something to do with his inability to persuade Congress (and the American people) that the stakes were high enough, the evidence confident enough, the provocation immediate and grave enough to justify such a profound course, at least in Iraq. But that's speculation. It carries no legal weight. What does carry legal weight is that he never did ask. And not having asked, he never received. And having never received, he is not entitled to claim any privileges or powers that might have accrued — might — if he had.

Remind your Congresspeople of this. Remind them that it makes no difference what the Attorney General says when the Constitution has already decided. Remind them that there is a reason the Constitution vests them with this authority, which is that the founders felt a nation such as ours should only be moved to war as a last resort, after vigorous and searching debate. Remind them that we never had that vigorous and searching debate. Remind them that it may well be time we did, but that in the meanwhile the President cannot claim a legal authority based on a state that does not legally exist.

February 10, 2006

Family Drama

It's getting harder and harder to see how the beast will soldier on. The front page of the Times has begun to look like some experiment in extreme storytelling, each day taking the narrative of our national leadership deeper into unknown territories of fantasy, science fiction, criminality — and at increasing speeds. Plot twists are piling up quicker than in anything ABC or HBO could cook up. Take today, for example. Usually there's just one scandalous headline calling out during my morning scan. But today we get:

White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm

Ex-Cheney Aide Testified Leak Was Ordered, Prosecutor Says

Ouch! And that's not all. Click over to the Washington Post and you're greeted by:

Ex-CIA Official Faults Use of Data on Iraq

Oh, for the days of errant oral sex! Oh, for debates over the meaning of "is"!

(And by the way, a skim of weekly congressional headlines — in which icons of corruption, bribery, kickbacks, and various other vices are given choice leadership positions — won't leave you feeling any less queasy. Not only was Tobacco Boy Boehner made majority leader in the house this week*, but the guy he replaced, heavily indicted Tom DeLay, was offered two prestige gigs, one of which is on Appropriations, where he'll be back in the business of distributing your and my hard-earned money.)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the United States of the Sopranos. Surely this is what the much hallowed founding fathers had in mind: a cadre of thugs working from the Five Families playbook. (And yet I can't help thinking that if the Sopranos were in charge, there'd be just as much graft and corruption and bullying, yes — but we'd also have killed bin Laden and wouldn't have sold our financial souls to the Chinese government.)

The trouble with all of this is that none of it was unpredictable. Of course they knew about the levees. Of course the leak was ordered. And as for data on Iraq, this one qualifies as a near-snoozer. The revelations in James Risen's book are deeper, wider, and better documented, and they've been out for months. (And if you haven't read James Risen's book, you need to. But bring plenty of aspirin; things are worse than you think, though also different than you think.)

No, none of this surprises. Wherever this administration could have acted corruptly, they have; wherever they could have used official office for vindictive personal business, they have. (This is, by the way, how we really got the Iraq war.) Wherever they could have lied, or deceived, or covered up the truth, they have. Wherever they could have behaved like petty third-world tyrants, they have. And through it all, maybe worst of all, wherever they could have bungled the job irreversibly, they — yes, that's right — they really have. And you're safe in the assumption that things will always get worse, because with this crowd things do, in fact, always seem to get worse.

So the only question now, the only source of suspense, is how long we're going to let them get away with it. We can't expect Congress — it almost makes you laugh to think it, doesn't it? Congress, yuk yuk: those guys — we can't expect Congress to take any action on its own. That would be taking sides against the family. You never take sides against the family. For one thing, they might cut off your allowance. And this family — well, this family will come after you with everything it's got. Or after your wife, anyway. Ask Joe Wilson.

But as of now, at least in theory, Congress still answers to us. Many of them will answer to us this very year. You and I can't press for special prosecutors. You and I can't call for hearings and investigations. You and I can't command media attention, deliver speeches in front of national audiences, issue subpoenas. But we can pressure our representatives to do these things. And we can vote for someone else if they don't listen.

So the question now is not how bad will they get; it's not when are they going to stop. There is no end to how bad they'll get, and they will never stop. The question now is what are we — you: the so-called American people; the shareholders in this bloated, topheavy, teetering corporation; the governed by whose presumptive consent these fools and knaves have jobs at all — what are we gonna do about it?

* In all fairness, he's just as deserving of the sobriquet Fanny Mae Boehner: he chairs the committee that oversees your friendly neighborhood loan giant, while his daughter, conveniently, serves as one of its chief lobbyists. But I'm sure that, like every good mafia family, they refrain from discussing business at the table.

February 07, 2006


It's worth noting that the protests flaring through the near East and Europe — now riots, many of them — are in some measure the fruits of Bush's and Blair's labors. Certainly not directly: neither man is a cartoonist. But the Iraq war to which both stubbornly, ineptly cling has provided angry sectors of the Arab world with ammunition and a glaring target.

Ineptly: it's important to understand that failure, or at any rate lack of success, has played a role here. All would certainly not be rosy had Baghdad never been invaded. But for more than three years now the Arab street has been seething over a low-burning flame, and with each passing day the misery that is Iraq offers generous kindling. Israel, of course — not the real place, but the monster of pointed regional legend and bedtime nightmare — remains the villain of choice. But Iraq is the looming symbol, locally, of Western attitude toward Arabs and the non-Israeli middle East. Iraq is seen as indicative, predictive. The Bush administration has never seemed to understand the extent to which this is so: the extent, I mean, to which it's not the mere presence of US and British armies that fuels tension, but the Westernness of those armies. Troops from Western countries are troops from Christian countries, by and large: not Arab, not of the middle East, not Muslim. Closely allied, those armies are — politically, historically, militarily — with Israel; and they have a record, in the region, of supporting corrupt and tyrannical regimes.

It's instructive that those same regimes are now leveraging proximity to morph themselves into local heroes. Who's busing the protesters in, after all? Who's provoking them with calls to Islamic solidarity? Whose security forces turn their backs while embassies burn?

Local leaders know an opportunity when they see one. They understand that the West is nearly finished in the middle East. We have little clout and dwindling capital. We aren't convincing anyone in the streets; in the streets, no one has been listening for quite some time. Moderates may have listened once — skeptically; cautiously. But the moderates are being squeezed out. There are fewer every day, and we've hastened their demise with our shambling, stuttering, ineffectual bravado and empty promises.

There was no room for Western failure in the middle East. Yet Rumsfeld's war, Cheney's war: failure, from the start of occupation to present day. American troops are sent to slaughter by men who don't know what they want, don't know how to get it, and can't see that they shouldn't come wanting to this part of the world to begin with. Iraqis are killed by those same men: starved, strangled, collaterally damaged, worst of all deprived of hope by delusion and incompetence, poor planning when not no planning at all, demagoguery and negligence. When the men running this war have done something right they've done it too little, too late.

There was no room for that.

If they needed to be shown how far and how badly things have gone — if they needed to know what little hope remains for recovery, or glimpse a very likely future — well, vivid demonstrations are now underway.

February 06, 2006

Free Speech

The chorus, in the aftermath of vociferous and even violent protests by Muslims across the Western and near-Eastern world in the last few days, is that free speech must have our support, but that it also must have its limits. No one has yet said what those limits are, but it seems safe to assume they fall in the vicinity of religious figures. Maybe people envision a summit meeting between international potentates in which one side offers Jesus for the other side's Muhammad, and so on. Freedom of speech, they all seem to agree, is not absolute. Joe Citizen feels compelled to disagree. Joe Citizens says it is either absolute or it is nothing. It is absolute, or it is an oxymoron.

Free speech, as Joe Citizen understands it, means precisely that the government — which is to say the law — cannot decide what is permitted to be said, particularly on such hot topics as politics or religion. Here's a woman in Denmark, a Muslim Dane, quoted on the subject in Sunday's Times: "'You cannot make a fool of someone who means so much to so many people around the world.'" It's a sentiment easy to sympathize with. Yet at the same time it is precisely the sentiment that was, and still is, used to isolate political figures — presidents, prime ministers, kings and dictators — from editorial comment and critique. Who is to say what "means so much" and "so many people" might refer to? Does that describe George Bush? If you ask Scott McClellan, perhaps it does. If you ask Karl Rove, perhaps it does. If you ask Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, it surely does. These are men who refused to let nonsupporters attend the president's campaign speeches during the 2004 election, you may remember — dissent, disagreement literally not countenanced. And how about the Pope: is he not tremendously meaningful to tremendous numbers of people around the world? And is he therefore to be off-limits to editorialists worldwide? Who else? Kofi Anan? Tony Blair? Madonna? And what is to be the penalty for breach?

It is an age-old argument, used by the worst public figures in history, still used by petty tyrants everywhere, every day. Mao and Stalin, Hitler, Amin: each claimed the special significance of his person to the history or imaginations of his nation's people, and used that claim to outlaw any but flattering address. No jokes, no insults, no calls for serious thought. And jail time — or the firing squad — for those who disobey.

The principle of free speech is the most democratic of principles, the most fundamental of rights, precisely because its presumption is that no man of any station is greater than another. No leader of any sort should ever be above question or criticism or, yes, pointed satire. A man in the street may say what he likes, regardless of how sacred the passing dignitary is held to be. Thus a frustrated resident of New Orleans, during one of Cheney's visits, as the latter gave an interview on the street: "Fuck you, Cheney. Fuck you." Elsewhere, in other times, a man of Cheney's temperament and in Cheney's position could have had this fellow shot. As it was, he could do nothing but laugh. (And in the end, isn't that the only appropriate response? This administration has survived far worse than coarse heckling. It has survived its own gross incompetence, and what, really, can it have to fear after that?)

Free speech is also a sign of health, of confidence. It fosters and demonstrates stability, and behind that stability a rational rather than whimsical approach to public discourse and to law. Perhaps this is the more difficult and telling aspect to its character, and the one most applicable to the current controversy. To a Western rationalist like myself, or I'd venture to guess many Europeans, Gaza residents claiming to be diminished by a few square inches in a Danish newspaper is a little like Christians in Idaho claiming their marriages suffer when a gay man in New York is able to stay overnight in his lover's hospital room. I suppose the analogy to anti-semitism is easier to grasp (though i've personally never heard Jews try to prohibit caricatures of Moses, nor to call for the heads of those who drew them), but it's also instructive, perhaps: because there's nothing unlawful about an antisemitic cartoon, at least in America. And yet you'd never see one in a mainstream daily, because the social costs would be devastating. This too is free speech: no editor is above a reader's reproach. No paper is beyond a boycott. Discontent can and will be voiced. This is the strength of free speech, and its own government, and why it only functions in the absolute: any opinion will not — cannot — be voiced in a vacuum, without competition, contradiction, dissent. Stupidity and bigotry will be named and decried when they out, because they have no lock on the public ear. Jail, even death, will never moderate a dialogue so well.

Protesters, then, proclaiming their disgust over a tasteless or denigrating opinion are not just within the spirit of free speech: they are the spirit of free speech, even when they're calling for heads, as ridiculous as some of us may find it. The minute they move to take a head, though — as they have in the last twelve hours or so, by negligence or design — they are its worst enemy. Because the boundary of free speech, if we're looking for one, lies at its frontier with action.