In some ways my late dad was not a deep thinker. Just crawling out from under the Great Depression and severe wounds from combat in WWII likely had more than a little to do with that. Yet, to his eternal credit, he made the most of the object lessons he received from those experiences.
One thing he did pass along was that much of history was the struggle of some people for rights and freedoms and the struggle of others to take them away. He told me that there wasn't a single right that hadn't been paid for, somewhere at some time, in blood and often more than once. He also told me that we didn't have a single right that, if unexercised or taken for granted, couldn't, perhaps even wouldn't, be taken away. For those rights, even if neglected by those who received them, all had real value especially to those who would take them away.
I sometimes wonder whether we haven't arrived at one of those eras of forfeiture of some, perhaps many of our hard won rights. Try as I might I haven't persuaded my children of the critical importance of maintaining and defending their right of privacy which is ultimately what anchors the bulk of our other human and political rights. To the contrary, they freely yield their privacy each and every day on Facebook and other social media sites. They generously fill in the gaps that otherwise might remain from credit and bank card transactions, health records and the myriad other ways by which we are monitored and tracked. I'm not even confident that either of them bothers to vote. Both of them strike me as easy meat for someone determined to relieve them of their freedom.
An article in today's Guardian concerning US voter suppression efforts in the runup to the 2012 elections piqued my concern. This sort of stuff used to be the preserve of progressive media outlets like HuffPost. Now it's appearing with some regularity in European papers. American parties that seek to win the right to govern their state are perverting their own democratic process. So where is the mass uprising, the outpouring of anger, the fierce defence of American democracy? Why aren't Americans of all political stripes taking to the streets to defend their constitution?
Worse yet, what does it say for the health of American democracy and American society that these outright attacks on the country and its people are met with such complacency, even outright indifference? If nothing else it surely signifies a situation in which power will flow from the public to their masters in the public and private sectors.
A few moments ago I took a coffee break and flipped through the pages of the latest Vanity Fair. There I came across an article, One Nation Under Arms, about the demise of American democracy and, in its place, the rise of today's "national security state." The author, Todd S. Purdom, worked his way through the 350-boxes containing the private papers of the late US diplomat and Cold War architect George F. Keenan (1904-2005).
Keenan wrote of what he called the "extreme militarization not only of our thought but of our lives."
"We could not now break ourselves of this habit without the most serious of withdrawal symptoms. Millions of people, in addition to those other millions that are in uniform, have become accustomed to deriving their livelihood from the military-industrial complex. Thousands of firms have become dependent on it, not to mention labor unions and communities."
"...it is the twisting of national priorities that is the most pernicious ripple effect of this military spending. It has become all but impossible to close any military base ... and it is always a heavy lift to cancel any weapon system because some community (or memeber of Congress) depends on it, econo9mically or politically. ...Great corporate engines once worked to build the US civilian economy and the infrastructure that underlay it; now they are at the service of military power and its projection abroad."
And then, in his letters, Keenan wrote this prescient warning:
"We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping."
More than 25-years ago, Keenan cautioned:
"There is much in our own life, here in this country, that needs containment. It could in fact be said that the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves: our own environmental destructiveness, our tendency to live beyond our means and to borrow ourselves into disaster; our apparent inability to reduce a devastating budget deficit."
We are becoming what we once reviled just a few decades ago when we revered, venerated even our democratic society as "open" and free. The very openness of our society was our bulwark against authoritarianism. It was also our strength. Today the malignancy of authoritarianism has triumphed and not merely in the US. Our own ruler, for all his claims to the contrary, despises openness and champions one-man rule. Well-placed Conservative insiders tell us that, to Harper, his caucus is little more than an assembly of obedient votes and his cabinet ministers exist solely to implement his dictates. This is not a man unduly burdened by worries about protecting your or my rights and freedoms.
How are we to reverse this otherwise terminal disease? How do we banish authoritarianism from our legislatures? Perhaps it begins by openly acknowledging what has gone wrong. It begins by talking about it and speaking out against it, loudly and clearly. It begins by those we chose to lead from the opposition benches denouncing authoritarianism and showing us a path to return to normalcy. It begins by revisiting our individual and collective rights and freedoms and taking stock of the extent to which they lie damaged and in disarray. It begins by imagining a strong and open society, the one we let slip through our fingers.