01/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Great Repression: Civil Liberties, the Economy, and a House Mismanaged

Yes, Virginia, financial markets are tanking and people are worried. Alas, Santa Claus did not bring a package of goodies to save the day. Unless you live in that backwater hinterland of the internet known as the "Amazon," all you likely received was a lump of coal. And no, Virginia, that coal is not going to burn clean.

Among the many challenges faced by the Obama Administration obviously will be the economy, derived from the Greek word for "household management." It's also clear that the previous owner leaves behind a "money pit" that is energy-inefficient, upside-down in its debt-to-equity ratio, and in desperate need of a global-image makeover.

The structure itself is looking a bit unsound these days as well. The foundational bedrock once known as the Constitution seems to have been consigned for lavatory use. The windows are so caked with mud and dirt that they're completely opaque. The whole edifice is slanted and the pool doesn't hold water. Tenants have been evicted, domestic workers let go, and guests told they're no longer welcome. Even the bushes are looking a bit tattered.

Such is the dilapidated feel of the American "household" these days. Still, as a people we're often inclined to look toward the future with a sense of optimism. And it may well be the case that the physical structure itself can be spruced up and made to at least "show well." But we're a long way from a true fix that goes more than just skin deep.

Beyond the tangible challenges we face lie even deeper ones buried in the legal architecture of the post-9/11 years. Like termites, these alterations in the laws have infested the entire system; like faulty wiring they make it difficult to pinpoint the source of the problem. A piecemeal approach to undoing them will be insufficient, and I wonder whether the will exists among either the populace or the politicians to do what it will actually take to remedy things. Indeed, we may have to consider rebuilding altogether.

The task might begin with the nefarious USA PATRIOT Act, which isn't actually a single piece of legislation but rather a series of amendments to myriad existing laws. It's an ingenious method of rendering challenges impracticable, since the tentacles of the Act reach across paradigms from intelligence and law enforcement to banking, immigration, and telecommunications. Undoubtedly motivated in part by an attempt to alter the national conscience about where the line between personal privacy and governmental control is properly to be drawn, fear was and still is the key to gaining acceptance of deeper incursions into our lives. And by now data mining and overt surveillance have almost become a "new normal" to which people rarely seem to object anymore.

Subsequent iterations included the proposed Patriot Act II with its "compelled informants" provisions, and the totally-creepy Total Information Awareness proposal with its eye-atop-a-pyramid logo and "knowledge is power" slogan. Both were ostensibly tabled due to pushback when early leaks exposed their nuances, but aspects still wound up being enacted piecemeal through other means. Then there's the Military Commissions Act, attempting to abolish habeas corpus and essentially allowing the President to determine unilaterally whether an individual has any rights. There's also the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which provides heavy penalties for actions (potentially including legitimate forms of expression) if they target certain favored industries. Plus there are the FISA Amendments of 2008 that abated judicial oversight of warrantless wiretapping. And let's not even get started about the exigencies of Homeland Security.

The overarching issue here is the consciousness that inheres in this brave new world. In today's lexicon, a "terrorist" could be someone who (under the Patriot Act) merely attempts to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" -- which actually sounds like a fair summary of U.S. foreign policy, but is aimed instead at those who would seek to foster change through means perhaps even including protests or boycotts, for example.

Equally amazing is the toleration of open forms of repression. Activists are preemptively arrested before major events such as political conventions; neophyte environmentalists are given outrageous prison sentences for symbolic acts of property destruction; multitudes languish in the legal black hole of Guantanamo and similar facilities around the world; torture techniques are routinized and made part and parcel of the open-ended "war on terror." All of this represents a wholesale shift in overtly repressive policies, harking back to the now-rebuked days of COINTELPRO, the Red Scare, the Palmer Raids, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Taking its rightful place alongside these historical ignominies is the Green Scare of today, which we can think of more broadly as the Great Repression. Can it be doubted that the suppression of dissent and the crashing of the economy are related? A house divided, or in this case despicably mismanaged, cannot prosper. The intricate software of subjugation serves the austere hardware of stratification. Quelled dissent allows warfare to churn on and bust the budget, and gives monopolistic enterprises a free hand to operate with profligate impunity. A culture of compliance and complicity, in short, allows the open theft we've witnessed -- not only of our national "treasure" but of our fundamental ethos as well, as a recent Rolling Stone piece makes clear:

"Under midnight regulations, the [Bush] administration is seeking to lock in the domestic spying it began even before 9/11. One rule under consideration would roll back Watergate-era prohibitions barring state and local law enforcement from spying on Americans and sharing that information with U.S. intelligence agencies. 'If the federal government announced tomorrow that it was creating a new domestic intelligence agency of more than 800,000 operatives reporting on even the most mundane everyday activities, Americans would be outraged,' says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now serves as national security policy counsel for the ACLU. 'This proposed rule change is the final step in creating an America we no longer recognize -- an America where everyone is a suspect.'"

And thus we arrive on the doorstep of a new era. The structure is shaky, the walls are infested, and the architecture itself is deeply flawed. Even if financial markets bounce back, the larger problem persists if we're still living inside a permanent panopticon. On the positive side, however, the land itself has great potential and there are a lot of people ready to swing a hammer. Indeed, the optimist in me wonders if the next epoch might be something like the Great Restoration, and if the next property manager might someday be remembered as the Great Renovator...

It'll take all that and more to fix up this old house. How about a new Department of Homeland Improvement to help do the job? Since transitions are a good time to do some serious housecleaning, let's grab a broom and get busy -- each and every one of us.

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