Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Is this what he meant by "we will listen"?

At the end of the famous Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man,” the skeptical cryptographer eventually comes to trust the aliens who have thus far desired only to help mankind. After the title of the alien book is deciphered as the hopeful, if ambiguous To Serve Man, Chambers opts to go aboard the alien ship for a holiday. He finds out he is to be just another ingredient in a bowl of human gumbo.

After reading "Government opts for secrecy in wiretap case" I am starting to feel a bit like the fattened calf myself.

I had been skeptical of Obama, and of Democrats in general leading up to the election. I had been a supporter of Edwards until he ran out of steam and subsequently imploded in a sex scandal. Then I became a Clinton backer, mostly because I figured that between her and Obama, her Rolodex would be the more impressive. But then came Iowa, the ultimate underdog victory. I was intrigued. Then there was that epic, and frankly, historic speech on race. I was on the bus then. I took it with him all the way to January 20th. I cried. I felt poetry well up. But I never mistook passion for policy, glibness for governance, or speeches for state-craft. I figured the Obama term, at least initially, would be what candidate Biden had suggest it would be: on the job training.

But over the past seventy-plus days, Obama has surprised many, including myself, which his deftness at international diplomacy, his desire to maintain regular communication with the people, and to treat us like adults, rather than as children needing to be coddled and soothed by happy talk. I think many of us have found his work ethic inspirational. This is a young man at work. We like that, especially in a time of crisis.

And much of this work has consisted of cleaning up after the previous administration’s numerous toxic spills. “Change has come” started to look like an army of bureaucrats with big mops. But in reality, the work was done with ink; filling in the erasures in the constitution wrought by Bush and company; signing the memos and bills that would close illegal detention facilities and bring an end to an illegal war. Those pens seemed to work around the clock, with the Pentagon just recently rescinding a 1991 order, signed by the elder Bush, that denied fallen American soldiers the dignity of being welcomed home by those they have sworn to defend. The pens even went so far as to keep the troll-like Ted Stevens, an obstinate, venial Alaskan Republican senator, out of prison by overturning his conviction because the true interest of justice had not been satisfied. (see related entry below)

All this work has been vital because, with Obama, it seems, (or perhaps I need to put that in the past tense) that principles matter, at least as much as pragmatism.

At least that’s what I had hoped. But as the bloom assuredly withers from the rose, and the warm rush of messianic hope gives way to the icy bite of real politik, somewhere a nine-foot alien is preparing human stew, and we’re all set to join the simmer.

It appears that the Obama administration is not only not going to go after figures in the Bush administration for clearing the use of illegal wire taps against American citizens, it’s also not going rescind the dubious “power,” and still worse, it’s seeking to strengthen and expand the NSA’s ability to spy on citizens by creating automatic immunity for any agent or contractor (like AT&T) who engages in the behavior at the behest of the chief executive. This is especially chilling considering that Obama the law professor used the Bush wiretap powers as a example of the executive branch overstepping its constitutionally mandated limits on power. Bush, of course, had always claimed that all bets were off in a so-called “time of war.” The premise being that the we were actually “at war” (not the president’s place to declare it in any case) against something called terrorism rather than someplace like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Furthermore, candidate Obama continued his critique on the Bush administration by decrying the secrecy and lack of transparency with which the administration had conducted itself post 9/11.

Change has surely come… to Obama’s sense of moral purpose. But what changed? Obama’s desire to undo so much of the Bush program may have caused some trepidation in the Pentagon, a place where Cheney evidently still has eyes and ears. The strange, almost Masonic culture of the place may not have been as overjoyed to see the new boss – the carpetbagger, Leon Panetta – as other departments had been (like State, where Hillary Clinton was greeted like a liberator by her new employees). Obama has no military bona fides to speak of, and has damn few allies in that area. The acceptance of the domestic spying program may be a “cue” to the insiders that Obama is willing to venture a bit into Cheneyian “dark side.”

One hopes for some clarity from the President on this matter, and perhaps a pointed question at the next press conference might talk all of us down a little. But my guess would be that he is hoping that this matter gets buried deep under the present concerns about the economy, North Korea, Iran, and the hot-as-hell “America vs. the Pirates!” action adventure going on in the Indian Ocean this week. It is possible. These issues are not necessarily front-and-center on the minds of pragmatic Americans, especially if housing and food are a genuine concern. Civil liberties, sadly, are often treated as a luxuries during times of crisis, even though that is precisely when they are most needed.

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