July 4 is typically a day for patriotic speeches about America's greatness. But, as Eric Foner pointed out in The Nation two years ago, it's also been a day for "eloquent indictments of a country whose actual practices all too frequently contradict its professed ideals." One of the greatest of those speeches was delivered on July 4, 1852, when the former slave Frederick Douglass spoke to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. While Douglass spoke of the contradiction between slavery and American ideals, his denunciation of "crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages" is strikingly relevant today to American practices of war and torture.
"What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy--a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
"There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
". . . . No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. . . . A change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.... Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other. . . .
"No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light."
The text, with commentary by Eric Foner, appeared in the July 19, 2004 issue of The Nation: Read it here.
It is clear that the American Constitution is in grave danger. It is time to make the defense of the Constitution a national theme for all candidates in this year's electoral contests.
The threat to the Constitution from President Bush, his administration, and an accomplice Republican Congress is all too obvious. In clear violation of established law and centuries-old political precedent, they have wiretapped American citizens; imprisoned citizens without warrants, charges, or means of redress; sanctioned and abetted the torture of foreign nationals; ignored clear Congressional legislative intent with the likes of 750 signing statements; disabled Congressional oversight of their actions; undertaken an assault on the press' right to publish the truth; and suppressed dissent and public-minded information disclosure within the Executive branch itself.
This abuse and overreach of Presidential power directly challenges the "checks and balances" at the core of our constitutional design. It proposes a government fundamentally different from that declared by the Founding Fathers.
The administration aggressively defends its actions on the grounds of national security and "unitary" executive power. It argues that we are in a state of war, of indefinite duration, which gives the Commander in Chief extraordinary autonomous powers. It argues, too, that the President has final control over all employees of the Executive branch – including those with no military function – and extending to the control of information they are permitted to provide to the public. As the Decider, President Bush decides what the public can or cannot know.
Simply put, to accept these arguments would be to accept the end of our democracy.
Central to the defense of this nation is defense of its constitutional values as well as its physical security. To sacrifice the Constitution in the name of "national defense" would be a grave mistake, for it destroys the very nation worthy of defense in the first place. This country has faced perils no less than today's – including those vanquished in a Civil War and World War II – without abandoning that conviction. To abandon it now would disgrace us before those who fought and sacrificed and gave us the gift of this nation.
Nor does prudence recommend this course. As we have relearned in recent years -- in instances as diverse as the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and Medicare reform -- a President who can suppress "unwanted" information breeds dangerous incompetence, and a government that acts on bad information becomes a bad government.
The actions of the Executive branch have a real and powerful impact on our lives. We simply cannot afford a "unitary executive" who silences independent voices, lets politics determine science, threatens our first amendment rights, withholds critical information from even enforcement personnel, and elevates personal loyalty to him above the duty to inform the public.
The American people's most powerful weapon in defending the Constitution is their vote in Presidential elections. But we cannot afford to wait until 2008. The danger to our Constitution is clear and present. Hence our call to all patriots to put the issue before the public in this November's elections and ask of all candidates, "Do you accept or condemn the President's assault on our Constitution?"
Some will object that using an election to defend the Constitution threatens to debase it to an instrument of partisan politics. The objection is misplaced. In fact, an electoral contest over Constitutional first principles will not debase those principles, but elevate the discourse, meaning, and substance of the contests themselves. There is no better use of parties, elections, and our votes.
Some will shrink from defending the Constitution out of fear that the public is not interested in such a discussion or lacks a real commitment to constitutional government--that it's a losing issue. They should have more faith in the American people. Given a clear choice, Americans will choose defenders of the Constitution over those who would destroy it. But the choice must be put clearly before them.
Declare our current crisis, and invite those who would serve as our elected representatives to defend the Constitution against our current President and an accomplice Republican Party.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the approval and signing of theDeclaration of Independence, the document's author was an 83-year-old formergovernor, vice president and president. Yet, what Thomas Jefferson was mostknown for in 1826 was his role in crafting the founding vision of the UnitedStates.
This was the recognition that Jefferson welcomed. Indeed, when he diedon that 50th anniversary, he was buried on the grounds of his Monticelloestate beneath a stone that made no mention of the political offices he hadheld. Rather, it read:
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
Jefferson has little faith in presidents and their Cabinets. He was no greatfan of the Congress.
What he believed in were the ideals of the America experiment. He was proudto have shaped the documents that defined those ideals. And he wanted hislegacy to be that not of a holder of office, but of a champion of therevolutionary promise of liberation from the tyranny of warrior kings andtheir oppressions.
Today, there are those who attempt to remake Jefferson and the otherfounders as religious zealots, as essentially conservative men who happenedto have a slight squabble with King George III, or, worst of all, asimperialists who would want the United States to dominate the affairs ofother lands.
The founders were imperfect men, to be sure. Few were so radical, or sofar ahead of their times, as Tom Paine, the wisest of their number. But theywere, proudly and unquestionably, revolutionaries against the old order ofinherited monarchy, state churches, empires and the authority of the fewover the fate of the many.
We know this to be true of Jefferson because, as July 4, 1826, approached,he was invited to appear in Washington for a celebration of the Declarationof Independence. Age and infirmity prevented Jefferson from attending theevent, but he sent a message – his last political statement – which read:
May (July 4) be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some partssooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the signal of arousing men toburst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition hadpersuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and securityof self-government. That form (of government) which we have substituted,restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom ofopinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The generalspread of the light of science has already laid open to every view thepalpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles ontheir backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride themlegitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. Forourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh ourrecollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
On this Fourth of July, we Americans would do well to embrace Jefferson's last words and the Americanideals that, though battered by the current tyranny, will outlast the KingGeorge of the moment.
Forty years ago this week, on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act.
The choice of July 4 for the signing ceremony was no coincidence.
The signing of the Freedom of Information Act represented the realization of the promise of self governance that may have been born on July 4, 1776, butthat was never fully realized until 190 years later.
Why is the Freedom of Information Act such a big deal?
Because, as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, explained, ""Apopular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge willforever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors,must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
Until the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, Americans were deniedaccess to information that should rightfully have been available to them,and without which they could not be their own governors. As John Moss, thecrusading California congressman who secured its passage, frequently noted,the Freedom of Information Act was the first law in the long history of theRepublic that gave Americans the right to access the records of federalagencies that are funded with their tax dollars and that are, supposedly, attheir service.
That is a right that, Moss argued, was every bit as essential to realizingthe full potential of America democracy as the protections contained in theBill of Rights. And, of course, he was correct. What good is freedom ofspeech if that speech is not informed by knowledge of what the government isdoing in our name but without our informed consent? What good is freedom ofthe press if reporters are unable to find out what government agencies areup to?
The American people well recognize the value of the Freedom of InformationAct. Millions of citizens have made FOIA requests over the past fourdecades.
Unfortunately, the hyper-sensitive and hyper-secretive Bush administrationis now at war with the Freedom of Information Act -- just as the New York Times-bashing president and his allies are battling Freedom of the Press.
In the first year of hispresidency, Bush's then attorney general, John Ashcroft, dispatched a memoto federal agencies that told their administrators to use delaying tacticsto thwart the intent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ashcroft'sorder directed federal agencies to stall the release of requestedinformation until the completion of a painstakingly slow "full anddeliberate consideration" of the implications of releasing any particulardocument.The response by federal agencies to FOIA requests slowed to a crawl,creating an outcry that finally led Bush to issue an order last year thatappeared to endorse the values contained in the Freedom of Information Act.In fact, that was not the case.
While Bush's language seemed to support openness – "Agencies shall processrequests under the FOIA in an efficient and appropriate manner and achievetangible, measurable improvements in FOIA processing" – his order wasactually a vague statement that was issued not to get agencies jumping onFOIA requests but to head off Congressional action on the bipartisan OpenGovernment Act.
Written to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Open GovernmentAct seeks to end stonewalling by establishing a deadline – 20 days after thefiling of an FOIA request -- by which agencies must respond.
It's a timely and necessary reform.
Yet, at this point, both the House and Senate versions of the OpenGovernment Act are languishing in the Judiciary Committees of the respectivechambers.
If Americans want on this 4th of July Holiday to honor the democratic values that arethis country's greatest strength, perhaps of the best way to do so is bymaking a resolution to contact our representatives in the House and Senateand tell them to support the Open Government Act. This enactment of thissimple reform will renew the promise not just of the Freedom of InformationAct but of the Declaration of Independence and the American experiment.
There is no small measure of irony in the fact that the final vote by the U.S. House of Representatives before leaving for an extended Fourth of July break involved a basic question of American freedom – and there is no small measure of tragedy in the fact that the majority of House members took a position closer to that of King George III than the American revolutions who will be celebrated next Tuesday.
The question so basic that it should not have produced a division at all: Should the United States have a free press that challenges and exposes government wrongdoing, or should the United States have a subservient press that "cooperates" with government to report the "news" in a manner that pleases those in power?
Yet, in a flurry of last-minute procedural votes on House resolutions rebuking the news media for reporting leaks about Bush administration schemes to spy on Americans produced a variety of results, the Congress consistently came down on the side of a subservient press that performs stenography to power.
The final measure of authoritarian sentiment came in the vote Thursday evening on the measure introduced by Ohio Republican Mike Oxley: House Resolution 896. And the result was even worse than on some of the earlier votes: Only 183 of the House's 435 members voted to uphold the Constitution.
The Oxley resolution, written as part of the Bush administration's push to punish the New York Times for reporting on a secret program that monitors millions of bank transfers was fairly draconian in its language – despite the efforts of some House Republicans to temper their caucus' vitriolic response to recent leaks and news stories about Bush-backed domestic and international spying programs.
Among other things, it declares that the House "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" in keeping secret spying programs that the Bush administration claims are part of a war on terrorism but that could easily be used to invade the privacy of Americans.
No member of Congress who took seriously his or her oath to "defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" could vote for legislation that is so clearly at odds with the Freedom of the Press protections contained in the First Amendment to that document, and with the clear intention of founders such as Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Yet, the final tally on the Oxley resolution was 227 in favor, 183 against.
The party breakdown was murkier than on some of the earlier votes, which pretty much divided along partisan lines.
Two hundred and ten Republicans endorsed the "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" language, as did 17 Democrats.
The anti-First Amendment Democrats were John Barrow of Georgia, Melissa Bean of Illinois, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Pete DeFazio of Oregon, Chet Edwards of Texas, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Brian Higgins of New York, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charles Melancon of Louisiana, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Mike Ross of Arkansas, John Salazar of Colorado, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
The 183 voted for a free press came from 174 Democrats, 8 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
The pro-First Amendment Republicans were Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Donald Manzullo of Illinois, Butch Otter of Idaho, Ron Paul of Texas, Chris Shays of Connecticut and Jim Walsh of New York.
Through the various procedural votes, Shays was the most consistent backer of Freedom of the Press. But all the Republicans who voted against the resolution deserve praise. They provided a faint signal that there is still bipartisan support for the First Amendment in Congress – even if that there was not enough of it to carry the day for the Constitution.
It's been a rough year for Democratic softball.
Renegade Republicans seceded (sound familiar?) and formed their own Capitol Hill league.
The RNC beat the DNC last week.
And last night Congressional Republicans trounced Congressional Democrats 12-1 at RFK stadium. The GOP has won four in a row and 11 of their last 13.
Ouch. Maybe Democrats need to bring in reinforcements from High Times?
Hopefully for Democrats their sluggishness at the batter's box doesn't translate to the ballot box in November.
Today President Bush visits Graceland, the legendary Memphis home of Elvis, with outgoing Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. The visit is a reward for Koizumi's sending troops to Iraq. The Japanese prime minister is a big fan of The King; when Bush visited Japan, Koizumi sang "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" to him -- a diplomatic first.
The visit to Graceland provides a golden opportunity for Bush critics to mobilize the King against the President. Some suggestions for signs for demonstrators:
"It's Now Or Never: Fight Global Warming"
"You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog – if you don't End the War Now"
"Don't Be Cruel – stop torture by Americans"
"Suspicious Minds – want ballots with a paper trail"
"Jailhouse Rock – for Karl Rove"
"It'll make you so lonely you could die -- Close Gitmo Now"
A welcome of this kind could leave the president all shook up.
The first test of the GOP's new "American Values Agenda" got off to a shaky start yesterday, when Republicans failed to protect the words "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance in a House Judiciary Committee vote.
Even though Republicans have a six person advantage on the Committee, seven Republicans skipped the vote and fourteen Democrats opposed the challenge to the courts, resulting in a 15-15 tie.
The pledge challenge is one of ten items in the new legislative package unveiled by House Republicans two days ago, "aimed at energizing social conservatives five months before the midterm elections," CNN reported. Only 30 percent of Republicans are more excited about voting in November than in past elections, according to a new Pew poll. Bashing the New York Times, apparently, is not enough to get them to the polls. Here's the full agenda, for your reading pleasure:
Pledge Protection Act (HR 2389; Akin)Summary: Protects the Pledge of Allegiance from attacks by activist federal judges seeking to rule it unconstitutional.
Freedom to Display the American Flag Act (HR 42; Bartlett)Summary: Ensures an individual has the right to display the U.S. flag on residential property.
The Public Expression of Religion Act (HR 2679; Hostettler)Summary: Ensures local officials and communities do not face financial ruin to defend their rights to free speech under the Constitution (provides that when state or local officials are sued over public expressions of religion, no monetary damages, costs, or attorney's fees may be awarded).
Marriage Amendment (HJRes 88; Musgrave) Summary: Constitutional amendment declaring marriage to be between a man and a woman
Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act (HR 356; C. Smith)Summary: Requires that those performing late-term abortions inform the woman seeking an abortion of the medical evidence that the unborn child feels pain, and ensure that if she chooses to continue with the abortion procedure, she has the option of choosing anesthesia for the child, so that the unborn child's pain is less severe.
Human Cloning Prohibition Act (HR 1357; D. Weldon)Summary: Bans human cloning and the importation of products derived from a cloned human embryo (e.g. stem cells).
BATFE Reform (HR 5092; Coble) Summary: Reforms the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (BATFE) to protect citizens' rights.
Internet Gambling Prohibition (Leach/Goodlatte):Summary: Addresses the issue of illegal internet gambling by making gambling laws apply equally to the internet.
Permanent Tax Relief for FamiliesSummary: Likely series of votes on the child tax credit, marriage penalty relief, tax incentives for adoption, and other priorities for American citizens.
Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act (HR 5013; Jindal) Summary: Prohibits governments from using federal funds to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens during emergencies.
The Bush administration's attempt to demonize the New York Times -- a newspaper that gave the administration plenty of aid and comfort when the White House was spinning lies about WMDs in Iraq -- will be remembered as one of the ugliest chapters in the history of press freedom in the United States.
The question that will ultimately be asked is not whether the Times did the right thing in revealing to the American people the details of Bush-authorized spying programs--by any measure, the newspaper was right to do what it did and history will provide more than enough vindication.
The ultimate question is this: When the White House, its allies in Congress and its echo chamber in the right-wing media attempted to intimidate mainstream outlets into keeping secret the details of invasions of privacy authorized by an out-of-control executive branch, did responsible members of Congress move to check and balance an irresponsible president?
The line is being drawn by a group of House Republicans, who are promoting a hastily-drawn resolution to condemn the Times.
Any member of the House who votes for the resolution will earn a place in history alongside the sponsors of the Alien and Sedition acts and other assaults on basic freedoms.
But how many members will stand strong for the First Amendment?
How many will do more than just vote right? How many will say this is a question of whether the U.S. House of Representatives supports freedom of the press?
One of the most outspoken members of the Congress -- a member with a long record of standing up to both Democratic and Republican presidents when they have abused the Constitution -- has answered with a stirring speech on the House floor.
On Wednesday, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said:
"This Administration is angry that the media leaked the story about it snooping into the bank records of millions of Americans. It supporters in Congress want to formally condemn the New York Times. What a bunch of baloney.
"It is about time the media did its job of protecting the public interest. If the media and this Congress had shown some independence from the party line of this Administration, the claims of WMDs would have been dismissed, and fact there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11 would have been well established and we would not have gone to war against Iraq.
"A few years ago, a movie, Wag the Dog, told of how a US administration misused its communications power to create phony stories to put the nation into an international conflict. This Administration not only wagged the dog in Iraq, but, with the help of its fabricators at the Rendon and Lincoln groups, it has wagging a whole kennel.
"In a free society the media cannot be a lap dog of any Administration. The First Amendment states, 'Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech', except of course, under this Administration."
O.K., so can we just admit that when it comes to redistricting – the processby which politicians define the legislative branch of the federal government– there are few if any limits on partisan power grabs?
That certainly seems to be the signal from the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasruled that disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his henchmenin the Texas legislature were fully within their rights to radically alterthe maps of the state's U.S. House districts in order to solidify Republicancontrol of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The redistricting of congressional districts – a process traditionallycarried out once every ten years by state legislators, who are supposed touse fresh Census data to assure that all of state's districts have similarpopulations – is the single most powerful tool by which the make up of theU.S. House of Representatives is determined. By gerrymandering districts togive advantages to incumbents from one party or another, legislators haveover the years made most House elections irrelevant. Even a well-fundedchallenger with the issues on his or her side cannot upset an incumbent whohas been given a district with favorable lines. As a result, in any givenelection year, only a few dozen of the nation's 435 House districts seecompetitive contests.
As bad as the circumstance was, in 2003, DeLay made things dramaticallyworse. After using his national contacts to raise the money to putRepublicans in charge of the state legislature in 2002, he had his allies inAustin radically redraw the state's congressional map with the expresspurpose of defeating Democratic incumbents and electing more Republicans.
It worked. Republicans picked up six Texas congressional seats in 2004.
Democrats challenged the redistricting, but the court's ruling has placed astamp of approval on DeLay's map – with one minor objection – and assuredthat the gains Republican gains engineered by DeLay will be retained.
But the importance of the 7-2 Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday goes far beyond Texas.
Three dangerous precedents have been set:
• The court has stated that the map DeLay's produced did not represent an"unconstitutional political gerrymander" of the state's district lines.Since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically-motivated map, thecourt has effectively said that partisans can draw maps that suit theirpolitical purposes without fear of intervention or objection by the courts.While some analysts interpret a line from a previous court ruling assuggesting that critics of a redistricting map could come up with a"reliable standard" for challenging a map, if such a standard could not beapplied to the DeLay map it is hard to say where it would ever be viable.
• The court has upheld the right of states to change their congressionaldistrict boundaries more frequently than once every ten years -- followingthe completion of a U.S. Census. – which is the traditional standard. Whatthis means is that, when control of a state legislature shifts, so too couldthe state's congressional district lines.
• The court has held that there is "nothing inherently suspect about alegislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with oneof its own." Thus, court-ordered plans – which are usually the fairest tovoters, in that they tend to set up more competitive districts – can bereplaced by legislators who don't like them. This is a hugely significantdevelopment, in that it effectively removes the fall-back position that goodgovernment groups have used when challenging legislative gerrymandering.Foes of a particular map might get it thrown out by the courts, and theymight even get a panel of judges to draw a new map, but there is no longerany certainty that the new map will stand.
The court did rule that the lines of one Texas district will need to be redrawn because DeLay and his minions moved 100,000 Hispanic voters out of the southwest Texas 23rd District in order to protect a Republican incumbent, Henry Bonilla, politically. The court determined that move to undercut the influence of Hispanic voters was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. But, notably, the four most conservative justices on the court opposed even that determination.
Anyone who was looking to the Supreme Court to clean up the redistricting process and to provide for competitive elections is making a mistake. As Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy says, "If we're really concerned about fair elections, we have stop counting on the courts and start looking for political solutions."
In the short-term, Richie says, Congress should set national standards for redistricting. "Congress could establish standards for transparency -- sunshine-on-the-process standards that could be defined so that redistricting can't be done behind closed doors. A second step could be to set guidelines for when you can and cannot do redistricting. That would address some of the concerns about the court's ruling."
In the long-term, Richie says that reformers should begin pushing from a proportional representation system that might see three members of Congress elected from larger, more competitive districts using an instant-runoff voting model.
"If you are concerned about what the court ruling has done, there are immediate steps that can be taken," says Richie. "But what we need to do is dig in to really reform how elections for Congress are conducted."