Poore Richard's Really Poore Almanack

The last two years worth of “hometown newspaper” columns from Dahlonega, Georgia
that led to Richard Van Ingram being banned from the only news and opinion organ in the county.

Of Stormy Nights and Rough Seas; Or, I Fought the Law and the Law Won
February 2006

"Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations."
George Orwell
from "Politics and the English Language"

(For J.S. and H.S.T.)

In the midst of a terrible, bewildering storm, there is a ship. We only see it when the wicked lightning rips the sky – the masts are broken, the crew has been swept into the boiling sea. And at the helm the sole survivor has lashed himself to the wheel, a ragged and desperate man, eyes wild with something that could be horror, that could be pointless determination – that could be both. Strangely, there is a flag of some sort wrapped around his neck, possibly in an attempt to salvage it; it isn’t a flag one sees anymore outside movies and comics – it is a black flag with skull and bones, the flag of a citizen of the world.

This vessel is a pirate vessel, dedicated to raiding the ports of established, unjust powers and overrunning the representatives of the crown wherever they are found. That was what this ship did when not docked so the crew could spend wasteful days at slothful pursuits while the captain labored at mending the craft. Or, that was what the ship did until now, when it found itself assailed from all sides by unpredictable, even violent circumstances – things one cannot face down with shell and blade.

Well, that was a dramatic enough entrance. Humorous also, as our ship is nothing but a metaphor, a creature of imagination made to represent two realities: my essay writing and myself.

Those "ports" I like to paint myself raiding are often clusters of inherited prejudices that keep us from examining our motives, that keep us from even considering we might be wrong about any number of things and allow us to treat ourselves and others poorly with a clean conscience.
Of course, this "me" versus "the great unwashed" stance is somewhat of an illusion. St. Paul declared himself the worst of sinners, a murderer with the blood of innocent people on his hands; I am unashamed to reveal that I served more than once as the governor of a port of prejudices and imposed them on others. I now attack those beliefs primarily to keep myself from going back to rest comfortably among them.

Who are these "agents of the crown" I mentioned? None other than those who presently set themselves up as the ruling class. Not those who legitimately rule by subordinating themselves to law and morality, taking no interest for their own advancement or that of their friends, but only in doing their duty in an attempt to serve the common good and work out legislation by negotiation and compromise, seeking understanding by rational debate.

The ruling class I have in mind are those who, with access to unimaginable wealth and their pull and their family connections get themselves elevated swindling the people, usually by means of playing on aforementioned popular prejudices, painting themselves red, white, and blue, demanding that they be personally identified with the military (which they usually send off to war, often with no clear idea what they are doing, with little care for the common soldier).

I have in mind those who believe that, because a great deal of power lies at their disposal, they may do with it as they wish. They become lawless and excuse it as an English monarch once did by proclaiming, "The law is in my mouth." They call their lawless behavior "legal" – because, to "protect us," they claim that any act performed by them is, by definition, legal. Yet, the real law, designed by those old rebel pirates, the Founding Fathers, was made in great part to limit those who hold power, not to enable them to pretend they serve a crown and to solemnly address the American people with trumped up Ivy League language that essentially means, "The law is in my mouth."

The law, the real law, exists to remind the office holder that the law is in the hands of the people, that he or she rules at the pleasure of the people, on behalf of the people, for no other purpose whatsoever than to serve the people -– to remind him or her that he or she is not above the people, no matter who his or her father and mother were, no matter how much money he or she has at hand, no matter to whom he or she owes favors. And no matter if the world is full of terrorists and other dangers, either. The spirit of the real law is protection from our rulers, to ensure their actions remain limited, always open to someone’s review, and as above board and unentangled in morally shameful motives or consequences as possible.

I have written about "legalized torture" in this newspaper and my sincere doubt that it is permissible for the White House to redefine torture to suit the ends of the crown – I mean, the president and his overly secretive vice-president. I have written about my sincere doubts that it is legal (or ethical) to hold prisoners incommunicado either at Guantanamo Bay or in any other dungeon: how do we say we are in a war and then define the "enemy combatants" as not being soldiers, thus removing them from the rules of the Geneva Conventions? I imagine that somewhere, some lawyer is laughing himself silly that he thought up that dodge and sold it to us.

Now, we have, at the president’s orders, the NSA conducting fishing expeditions, spying on American citizens with no oversight, no warrant, no limits, no authority other than that the president keeps saying, if we translate his homely drawl into kingly language, "The law is in my mouth."

Never mind the FISA statutes that are being blatantly broken; never mind that Congress and the courts are being completely bypassed. Did we not fight a revolution 225 years ago to get rid of precisely this sort of arbitrary exercise of power? Have we not fought again and again, amongst ourselves and with foreign powers, to uphold the principle that the American people will not live at the mercy of anyone’s random decisions, no matter how allegedly well meaning, no matter how "legal"? A lot of people thought that was the reason we went to war with the authoritarian terrorists. Now we find the same reasoning at the very top of our country – supposedly we need to be protected… from ourselves, as we are no longer to be trusted as free adults and citizens.

It came as a surprise only to innocent Americans that the government spies on terrorists and has decided to treat everyone as a potential terrorist. I am certain that any real terrorist with an I.Q. above 70 would assume his or her phone is tapped and his or her e-mail isn’t safe from the eyes of our government; no secret there. But what of the rest of us? What have we done to potentially come under scrutiny of the NSA, even for one second? Unknowingly spoke to the "wrong" person? Mention the "wrong" word? Read the "wrong" book? Held an unpopular political opinion?

Who knows? That’s the entire problem: the domestic spying program has no oversight from anyone whose job is to represent and look after the rights of innocent American citizens. Those who say things such as "I have nothing to hide" miss the point, which is, even if the power isn’t being misused at present, it sets a precedent.

Even if you completely trust this administration to be absolutely ethical in its use of this type of surveillance (in spite of the many reasons at this point to be skeptical), this administration will not be in power forever. As much as some might be sold on the idea that George W. Bush needs to be president for life, at this moment, he will be replaced in just a few years and we do not know who will follow. It could easily be a much worse administration, a pack of scoundrels consciously out to use all means necessary to solidify their rule and destroy any potential opposition, a White House willing to spy on and manipulate us for reasons that have nothing to do with a "war on terror."

This has happened here before. We need to re-study what went on in the Nixon White House if we find this nightmare scenario difficult to swallow; and if we think that because Nixon is dead all the danger has passed, think again: look up the roles of people like Dick Cheny and Donald Rumsfeld and their links to Nixon, their desire from the 70s on to undo the limitations that were placed on the presidency by Congress due to Nixon’s abuses.

I would write about this and other related matters more competently if I were not caught in that horrible storm which is my realization that no matter how many times I raid the ports and no matter how many of the crown’s ships I have faith I sink, they remain when I am done. They arise like the living dead after being struck down – and God knows better thinkers and writers with wider audiences than I will ever command have struck at these unworthy beliefs and have taken on this idea of "the imperial presidency" as well, with similar effect. My small, broken craft, my few tarnished cannon, my handful of rusty blades make war on foes beyond their limited capacity to subdue.

The storm? It is self-doubt, self-pity, depression, completely vicious feelings. Today I am nothing but one unhappy citizen who can write half-intelligible sentences. What is needed is something besides discontent. We need people to think, not just accept and repeat what the television feeds them. We need good, creative minds to offer our nation alternatives to the present rule of shortsighted greed and deaf, irresponsible power – realistic, ethical alternatives to be applied from bottom to top by both parties. We need some leaders. Not commanders, leaders.

We cannot write them into existence… can we?





Richard Van Ingram
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved