July 04, 2007
When I was a boy, back in the 1960s and 70s, the big news of the day was the Vietnam War. It went on and on, occasionally making house-calls when someone from the office would come into our class and take a student away. We always knew what that meant”the student in question had lost a brother over there. But one of the more impressive things about that conflict, to me at any rate, was how often commentators upon the war would liken it to our own revolution. Those in favor of our involvement would cast it like so”the North Vietnamese were the British oppressors, the South Vietnamese were the brave Americans, the Viet Cong were the loathsome Tories, and we Americans were the French come to save the day. Those opposed cast the roles a little differently: the VC were the brave American rebels, the North Vietnamese were the French, the South Vietnamese were the Tories, and we were the British. While all of this was doubtless exciting for the pundits so engaged in commenting, none of it had much to do with either the actual hostilities on the ground or the realities of the American Revolution.
Independence Day, 2007, has come again, and brought all these reflections back to mind. One thing I have always loved about the Fourth is setting off fireworks—a love, er, sparked by reading, decades ago, an account of how it used to be in an old copy of American Heritage.
In later years I learned that our use of the festive explosives had been borrowed from the colonial King’s (George, not Martin Luther) birthday celebrations. Of course, in the City of Los Angeles, fireworks of any kind—to include the much vaunted “safe and sane” variety are forbidden. Every year, would-be sparklers addicts are sternly warned of this on television, and advised to go to carefully managed displays in various parks. While the dangers of brushfire here are painfully obvious, this annual demonstration of the power of the law has always seemed a bit ironic for a festival supposedly devoted to freedom. More ironic still is the gusto with which my brother’s Latino neighbors, in his suburban sector of the city, celebrate the day. Not content with the afore-mentioned safe and sane stuff (freely available in the little independent cities that dot the County of L.A.; the ones entirely surrounded by the City tend to fairly bristle with fireworks stands the week before the holiday), they go all out. Firecrackers, sky rockets, Roman candles—you name it. Sitting in my brother’s backyard on the Fourth is like being directly under a park display—and just as frightening. But one neither spends money for the treat, nor need fear the police, since we don”t shoot off any ourselves. But LAPD helicopter do not fly over that part of the City on Independence Day.
Indeed, the Fourth of July fairly bristles with irony, and never more than in 2007. As in my childhood, we are involved in a seemingly endless war, to which the current president is committed—come what may. What is different, however, is that we are in the midst of a social revolution, imposed by the leading elites in our society, that said president was to great degree expressly elected to halt. When I was a child, of course, LBJ was president: he fully expected his “Great Society” to result in a peaceful, yet radical, alteration in our country. But I doubt the old crook would have been happy with abortion, gay marriage, women in combat, and all the other joys of our time.
The fact is that, if the crime of King George III and his ministers was indeed that they were unresponsive to the wishes of the majority, the same must be said of today’s governing classes. The two parties allegedly represent two core constituencies: one the one hand, social and economic conservatives, and on the other, organized labor and minorities. Certainly, both sides squawk a good deal. The president has appointed a few Supreme Court justices who so far have done their job; he has vetoed federal funding of stem-cell research, and will do so again; most notably, he ended financial aid to foreign entities that help ladies overseas eliminate their unborn. So far, so good.
I would even go so far as to say that, as an individual, he is undoubtedly a nice man. I could not imagine him putting a nurse off a plane to save himself, as LBJ did when fleeing the Philippines in World War II. Nor could I easily imagine him maintaining the views of marriage vows that characterized his predecessor. But for those of us who live under him, these estimable qualities may not count for much. After all, his Justice department, although suppressing the imminent threat to our American way of life posed by the Ten Commandments in Alabama’s Supreme Court Building, were completely unable to do anything about the judge in the Terry Schiavo Case—who was (and presumably will be until the statute of limitations runs out) in contempt of Congress.
Of course, under the current administration the American people have been subjected to quite a number of judicial shenanigans. On March 1, 2005, in deciding the case of Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juvenile murderers. Now, without wanting to venture an opinion of my own regarding the specific issue, what was disturbing about the majority reasoning as expressed by Mr. Justice Anthony Kennedy was that it was rooted neither in the Constitution nor the Common Law. According to the Washington Post the following day, “In concluding that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment, the court cited a “national consensus” against the practice, along with medical and social-science evidence that teenagers are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults. The court said its judgment, which overturned a 1989 ruling that had upheld the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old offenders, was also influenced by a desire to end the United States’ international isolation on the issue.” In other words, the majority declared that their ruling was based on changes in public opinion (long thought to be the province of the elected elements of government), and foreign examples (though it may be doubted whether they would use the same reasoning in, say, allowing anti-blasphemy laws).
Disturbing as this event may be, it was at least an organic development on the part of the Court; in the Borking of Judge Bork, it was determined that “Original Intent” of the Founding Fathers was to play no role in judging the constitutionality of a given law. Mr. Justice Thomas had to swear before the selfsame Solons of the Senate that he did not believe in the natural law. What Roper v. Simmons has shown is that the only guideline for Supreme Court Justices in their deliberations is the whim of the majority—in which case, the only real qualification for membership is a strongly held set of opinions. At least a lack of legal background need no longer be a bar to wearing the judicial robes in the highest court of the land!
But there is a downside, alas. Armed with this new understanding, on June 23 of the same year, in deciding Kelo v. City of New London, the majority ruled that governments may seize property from private citizens if they have found a new owner who will pay them more in taxes on the land than the current owners. Although their Honours did generously permit State and local governments to forbid the practice if they chose, the fact is that this judgment represents an enormous revolution in the relationship between the individual and his government, or, as we might more properly say now, the government and its subjects. What this means is that—save in those jurisdictions that still pay some attention to those who pay their bills and salaries—the landowner merely occupies his property in trust for the government, until such time as the real owners find a more lucrative tenant. Something to think about, indeed, on Independence Day.
But other courts have also been doing their bit. On April 8, 2004, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero issued a summary judgment dismissing a suit brought against the City of New York (specifically, against its banning smoking in private establishments) by the Players Club and CLASH (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoking Harassment). Specifically, these two groups argued that the same Constitutional “right to privacy” discovered by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, and further refined by that body on April 17, 2003 with Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, which struck down all remaining anti-Sodomy laws, also covered smoking between consenting adults. But Judge Marrero ruled that there is in fact no constitutional right to smoke. Moreover, “New York state’s and New York City’s stated basis for enacting the smoking bans—protecting its citizenry from the well-documented harmful effects of [secondhand smoke]—provides a sufficient rational basis to withstand CLASH’s constitutional challenges.” Of course, given the relative rarity of heterosexual AIDS, one obvious comeback would be that the same rationale should resurrect the anti-Sodomy laws. But actually, the real problem here, again, is not the specific issue but the legal dogma imposed—that citizens only have such rights as the government are pleased to grant them. This, of course, runs counter to the text of the Bill of Rights—specifically, Amendments 9 (“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”), and 10 (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”). But never mind. The Constitution, as a living document, means exactly whatever its custodians say it means—to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass.
It might well be objected at this point that President Bush had no more power over our masters of the Court than the lowliest subject in the land. Not so! For in addition to the Justice Department itself, His Excellency the President has many arrows in his quiver—executive orders to name one. As long as the Republicans had control of Congress, there was also the possibility of Legislative Override. Granted, this sort of thing would have cost political capital. But as things stand, legally speaking, a denizen of the United States officially holds only such rights and property as his government permits him to have. It was the perception—rightly or wrongly—that this was the state of affairs that led to the event on July 4, 1776 which is being celebrated today. Of what value is a President if he does not use all the means in his power to end this tyranny? Where are his priorities? Moreover, of what value is his party? How do they differ from their opponents?
One may also object, however, that we are at War, and in danger of domestic terrorism. As someone who stood a mile and a half from the Pentagon when it was hit on September 11, 2001, this is an issue to which I am particularly sensitive. Here again, though, one must raise objections—specifically, two. On the one hand, that very first week, as Americans for the very first time began to hear of “Homeland Security,” it struck me that a danger to the republic was being erected beside which even the presence of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court paled. To be sure, President Bush at the helm of the Security apparatus which has been built did not and does not disturb me too much. But what of his successor? Or hers? Sooner or later, we shall have a president who shares the Supreme Court’s unique vision of governance—and then?
The second issue is the Iraq War. Not of its conduct or probable outcome, or the lives lost, but the legality. Congress gave the President a blank check to wage war—a way to share the glory if all went well, and to dodge the blame if it did not. But this action was unconstitutional, even if no judicial authority in the land will so rule. Had Mr. Bush demanded a declaration of war against Saddam, as a just penalty for his breaking the armistice (which he in fact did), rather than playing about with WMD’s, he would be in a far different position domestically than he is now. It would have been harder work getting such a Declaration, but at that time he could have obtained it. There could be no recriminations on the part of the Democrats, and no gibing about faulty intelligence. The one drawback is that the War would have been by its nature somewhat limited. The president’s intention of remaking the Middle East, of a “global democratic revolution” could not have been so sweeping. But as the only tangible result of his policy has been the bombing of Lebanon (arguably our sole success in the region) “back to the stone age,” perhaps this would not have been so great a loss.
At any rate, in all these things, it is hard to see where Mr. Bush’s policies, save in rhetoric, differ from his predecessor’s—a truth that will not please either man’s fans. In his foreign policy, Mr. Bush has simply followed the “Clinton Doctrine,” wherein the Man from Hope stated that the United States would attack perceived threats to national security anywhere, regardless of national sovereignty (at that time I awaited in vain for Mr. Clinton’s apology to Japan for our overreaction to Pearl Harbor”since Japan was simply trying to head off a perceived threat to its security through a pre-emptive attack of the sort we are now contemplating making on Iran).
In most domestic matters as well, the two Chiefs are close. Exports of jobs and imports of cheap labor apparently please both, and the complaints of Republican stalwarts opposed to his immigration bill fall on deaf ears”as did the plaints of labor unions about NAFTA when Clinton ruled. The heartwarming photo of the Cheneys with the child of their Lesbian daughter and her partner was a photo-op that warmed the hearts of Clintons all across America. If Mr. Bush’s national security functionaries have made it difficult for academics who have protested his policies to travel by plane, Senator Diane Feinstein’s ominous invocation of the “fairness doctrine” might make one wonder how ruthlessly the Democrats will wield power when they get it. Certainly, whatever happens, globalization will continue to the detriment of the average citizen.
The sad truth is that the core constituencies of both parties, blinded by generations of rhetoric, have more in common with each other than with their respective political leaderships. You will be hard put to find many social Conservatives who like jobs being exported overseas, promote urban poverty, or delight in substandard education and shattered families for the minorities. By the same token, not too many blue-collar workers, Blacks, and Latinos really like abortion, gay “marriage,” or the possibility of having their daughters drafted. If ever this fact is realized on the part of the majority of these people, there will indeed be a political revolution in this country. I pray that it be confined to the ballot box rather than the barricades (violent overthrows rarely bring in anything better than what they dispose of), but that too will probably depend on the decisions of the elites.
For the moment, though, and in honor of the holiday, let’s play the game I described at the opening of this article, casting the present in terms of the Revolution. If you happen to share the rebel or “Whig” paradigm, this is easy. As I have suggested throughout, we have been reduced to landless, rights-less serfs—legally, anyway. So in this pattern, the political classes get to play George III and his ministers. The media, who generally support them and assure us that all is well get to be the Tory “traitors.” The suffering people do not yet realize that they are oppressed, so we are probably sometime around the era of the Stamp Tax. Oppression will follow oppression, incident follow incident, and eventually the match will touch the straw. God alone knows who will portray the French, to come in, break the power of the Royal Navy, and so end the war with freedom and justice for all.
That was an easy way to play the game. But we can make it harder, and take the Loyalist or Tory view. Doing it this way, the Constitution itself is King George III. Supreme in name, all officials swear “to bear true faith and allegiance” to him—just as our bureaucrats, politicians, and soldiers do with the founding document. But all the organs of government are dominated by a moneyed oligarchy, men like John Hancock and Philip Schuyler. Most of us colonists are unrepresented by those organs, but must pay our taxes to them just the same—the benefit of which inevitably goes to the oligarchs. It is a cozy arrangement, but in various ways, the elites feel constrained by their Sovereign. If they decided to throw off the cloak of allegiance, they would need the assistance, or at least the acquiescence, of a good part of the populace. Thankfully for them, they have the money and influence to secure this.
Should they go into open rebellion, a large number of us (two-thirds, according to John Adams, hardly likely to err in our favor) will either be indifferent or else steadfastly loyal to the King—who, like the Constitution today, offers the only hope of relief from the day-to-day exactions we live under normally. Why, in Massachusetts alone, the King intervened in the internal affairs of the colony twice in the early 1770s: to secure the rights of the Baptists of Ashfield, and allow them to support a minister of their own faith rather than the Congregational; and to restore self-government among the Mashpee Indians, freeing them from the rule of provincial commissioners—much to the annoyance of Mr. Hancock. It is little wonder then, that the rank and file of us Tories will be drawn heavily from cultural and religious minorities, and from economically depressed areas.
But many will simply be normal folk, who have sworn an oath that nothing can make them break. Some will have fought in the King’s wars against the French, seeing their Sovereign and their Country as one and indivisible, and Britain and America as no more or less different than their descendants might see New York and California. For such as these, the revolutionary ideas sponsored by their social and financial betters threaten all that they have ever known. All they want is for things to get back to normal—even as an older person of today might wish to return to the 1950s, in the face of all the changes his masters hand him. Though the issues appear to have changed, many might recognize these sentiments that Nathaniel Hawthorne attributes to such an old Tory:
Well, then, here we sit, an old, gray, withered, sour-visaged, threadbare sort of gentleman, erect enough, here in our solitude, but marked out by a depressed and distrustful mien abroad, as one conscious of a stigma upon his forehead, though for no crime. We were already in the decline of life when the first tremors of the earthquake that has convulsed the continent were felt. Our mind had grown too rigid to change any of its opinions, when the voice of the people demanded that all should be changed. We are an Episcopalian, and sat under the High-Church doctrines of Dr. Caner; we have been a captain of the provincial forces, and love our king the better for the blood that we shed in his cause on the Plains of Abraham. Among all the refugees, there is not one more loyal to the backbone than we. Still we lingered behind when the British army evacuated Boston, sweeping in its train most of those with whom we held communion; the old, loyal gentlemen, the aristocracy of the colonies, the hereditary Englishman, imbued with more than native zeal and admiration for the glorious island and its monarch, because the far-intervening ocean threw a dim reverence around them. When our brethren departed, we could not tear our aged roots out of the soil. We have remained, therefore, enduring to be outwardly a free-man, but idolizing King George in secrecy and silence,—one true old heart amongst a host of enemies. We watch, with a weary hope, for the moment when all this turmoil shall subside, and the impious novelty that has distracted our latter years, like a wild dream, give place to the blessed quietude of royal sway, with the king’s name in every ordinance, his prayer in the church, his health at the board, and his love in the people’s heart. Meantime, our old age finds little honor. Hustled have we been, till driven from town-meetings; dirty water has been cast upon our ruffles by a Whig chambermaid; John Hancock’s coachman seizes every opportunity to bespatter us with mud; daily are we hooted by the unbreeched rebel brats; and narrowly, once, did our gray hairs escape the ignominy of tar and feathers. Alas! only that we cannot bear to die till the next royal governor comes over, we would fain be in our quiet grave.
This is a spirit that some of my readers may well understand far better than I do. But imagine, to bring this little mental play to an end, that whatever our reasons for remaining attached to the government under which we and our ancestors flourished, we do. As events move on, the situation becomes more radicalized after Lexington and Concord, and the afore-mentioned gentry set up their own government. We are ordered to break our oaths, and swear allegiance to their new laws, their new morality. If we will not, then we will lose our property, and perhaps our lives. Submit, or lose all! That is the choice we are given.
But just as it was not really 1776 in my boyhood, neither is it today. Whether or not one prefers to identify with the Whigs or the Tories, there are few decent-minded folk who would be happy to see current trends continue: to see what is at the moment—for the most part—only legal theory translated into a hideous and inescapable daily reality. That is, for the majority to be truly bereft of rights or property; to be forced to accept a new morality they regard as depraved, and to see their children made to embrace it; to see every trace of religion driven from public life; and for all dissent from these measures to be crushed with the full force of the modern state.
It seems to me that avoiding this unpleasant outcome—and/or the inevitable and unpleasant reaction—requires first, and foremost, a personal declaration of independence. Independence from party labels; from the fear that either party induces in its supporters (“vote for us, or the bad guys will get in”—as though they had not already); from the idea that either personalities or “electability” are more important than principles; and above all, from the separation from our fellow citizens that the first two false ideas inculcate in us.
So, this Fourth of July, as I watch the illegal fireworks that my brother’s fellow townsmen will set off (from the safety of his legal backyard), I”ll be thinking of all of this. That the heavily illegal immigrant neighborhood will be celebrating American freedom in violation of the laws forbidding them to do so; that the act itself was originally done in honor of the King; and that Benjamin Franklin (whose politics, immorality, and irreligion I do not admire) was quite right when he said to his brother rebels, “gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall hang separately.”
Charles A. Coulombe is an author currently stranded in Los Angeles.