Of Stormy Nights and Rough Seas; Or, I Fought the Law and the Law Won
"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."
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
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?