Obama’s Record on Civil Rights, the Road to Stasiland

by Matthew Payne on September 29, 2011Comments Off

"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." George Orwell (c/o The Villager)

This cogent Op-Ed by Jonathan Turley sums up nicely why anyone concerned with the slow (and not-so-slow) erosion of civil rights in America should not support Barack Obama. As these pages regularly report, there is a Putin-level of police thuggery and suppression of dissent in the States that has simply become the background noise of dysfunctional neoliberal political culture. There are many, many Tony Baloneys out there. And it is certainly hard to argue with folks who think the War on Drugs™ is the major vector for coarsening of civil-police relations (especially when the methods used on dissidents were perfected in that arena and the Global War on Terror™ devotes so much of its attention on this front).

But these are just the most blatant manifestations of shockingly authoritarian policies which are being nurtured by an alleged liberal, Barack Obama. Turley gives the litany:

However, President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them. The earliest, and most startling, move came quickly. Soon after his election, various military and political figures reported that Obama reportedly promised Bush officials in private that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture. In his first year, Obama made good on that promise, announcing that no CIA employee would be prosecuted for torture. Later, his administration refused to prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for ordering or justifying the program and embraced the “just following orders” defense for other officials, the very defense rejected by the United States at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.

This last point, well besides the whole “our death squads/flying robots of death will hunt you and kill you” thing, is the most egregious. The Obama Administration has closed the court house doors to numerous civil rights suits by those detained, tortured and kidnapped in the name of “national security.” Not to belabor the point, but any country whose national security needs to be protected by illegal detention, torture and kidnapping is not a liberal democracy. It is not even a civilized state–it is a rogue nation in every sense of the word and the Kafka-esqe equivocations of Obama’s Department of Justice grossly misusing judicial pettifogging such as “standing” do little to hide this reality.  And the relentless expansion of the surveillance state makes Barack Obama the director of a nightmarish remake of The Lives of Others.

But Turley’s larger point has to be underlined. As bad as Obama has been in prosecuting the Forever War and its concomitant attack on civil liberties (there is no distinction between him and George W. Bush’s second administration, well except the robust defense of assassination and a contempt for Congress’s war-making authority that Dick Cheney surely would approve of), he has been a full-on disaster for the protection of civil rights. Part of this is political, as Turley maintains, since Obama’s election has quieted institutional resistance to these authoritarian policies.  The Democratic Party will not rein in the power of their “own” president, and many strong critics of the assault on civil rights have been silenced by either the taint of association of this rights-ignoring administration, or fear to stand up to the bullying of an arrogant and callous President for fear that a bigger bully, in the form of a GOP neo-McCarthyism, awaits in the wings. While Turley feels this strange liberal paralysis is due to a “cult of personality” (and one must give Obama credit, though all politicians do political stagecraft, his carefully crafted persona as the “last reasonable man in Washington” is an impressive political feat), I think his political analysis is more on track. Civil libertarians are demonized by the GOP and marginalized by the Democrats; far too many of them chose a vapid “pragmatism” by staying with the political faction that pretends to listen to them, at least around primary season. Turley calls this “Stockholm Syndrome” but I prefer to think of it as quiet desperation. Unfortunately in living this lie, that choosing the lesser of two evils is not choosing evil, these liberals have made themselves moral eunuchs.

The repressive police state in America is standing at a cross-road. The unholy hellholes that are its prisons have begun, predictably, to produce resistance. The hunger-strikes in the California system (which to be clear are directed against the use of techniques of isolation and deprivation designed to produce surveillance, techniques which seem borrowed from Gitmo itself) have resumed and that state under a “liberal democratic” governor is promising massive repression to break them. Middle-class kids are being maced in the streets. Unionized teachers and fire fighters are being portrayed as “union thugs.” The FBI has continued to manufacture its own terrorist plots (excuse me, conduct “stings”) and then congratulate itself on its vigilance in a manner that would have made Stalin’s secret police proud. Whole religions are spied upon and seeded with informers and agents-provocateur. “Papers, please!” laws are spreading like a cancer through the body politic.  Privacy has become a bad joke. The citizenry, without any unified opposition thanks to the complicity of the political elite, are pushing back–even in the confines of their own skulls. Turley reports that, “A Gallup poll released this week shows 49% of Americans, a record since the poll began asking this question in 2003, believe that “the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms.” Even given that some of these respondents will be the full-mooners over at the NRA, that is an impressive figure. More and more Americans feel, reflexively and even subconsciously, that in the blighted moonscape of a post-recession America we are moving inexorably into Stasiland. I hope that liberals understand that in muting their criticism for an administration that has “disgusted” the Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, they are effectively ceding the defense of civil liberties to the young people in the street.  In practice, this means allowing the protesters’ bodies to sacrificed to causes that liberals have failed to defend, all in the name of some sort of spineless, enabling pragmatism. The Administration and its partisans, I think, feel they are losing the narrative thread on this as in so many other issues. Perhaps that’s why Obama loyalists like Melissa Harris-Perry chose to play the race card or Obama chose a standard campaign speech to condescendingly tell the Congressional Black Caucus to “stop whining.” It is not true, of course, that “White” liberals have abandoned Obama (would that they had!), at least not in numbers greater than other democratic core constituencies, nor have the members of the Congressional Black Caucus been notable for anything but a lock-step endorsement of Obama’s legislative agenda, even when they have found that agenda deeply politically toxic.

Yet this sort of language, as well as the President’s recent faux-populism, is indicative of a larger “panic” in the White House. The summer’s collapse in the President’s approval numbers make it increasingly clear that the cult of personality approach to governing is collapsing under the relentless weight of joblessness, economic stagnation, rising poverty, intractable foreign wars and assaults (both domestic and in foreign policy) on the rights of labor. Hectoring and guilting are crappy political strategies. Right now the only candidate with a strong civil liberties message, Ron Paul, is within four points of Obama in the CNN poll.

For myself, there is very little that could convince me to vote for another Vichy Democrat like Obama. He is a creature of the most powerful economic and political factions in the country and that is why, despite his obvious vulnerability, he is likely to win next years’ election (though with a GOP-controlled House and Senate that allows him to make “grand compromises” that turn America into Peter Orzag’s wet dream of a “managed” democracy). That said, he is vulnerable and this is the time to wring concessions from him, while he is weak. While most so-called liberals and progressives have been pooh-poohing the Occupy Wall Street movement over the last week (these were the same “usual suspects” who snapped at the heels of the Madison movement like the attack Chihuahuas that they are), the pilot’s union suited up and marched. Looks like the transport workers are next and Richard Trumka is about to pull union money and man-power from the woefully compromised democratic party. There are even rumblings of a primary challenge from the left.

All these developments make it clear that the road to Stasiland is not a closed loop. Compromised civil libertarians can get up from their defensive crouch and take the president up on his hectoring to the CBC by “putting on your marching shoes”–only don’t march to the faux populism and police-state building diktat of Mr. Obama, march down to Wall Street and be heard. March to the Department of Justice and picket the place. Write a check for the ACLU instead of the DNC. Hell, saying something mildly critical of building of a huge super-max prison at Bagram in the faculty lounge. Just stand up. Barack Obama–he’s not your boyfriend, he may became your jailer.