The Bill of Rights is BS?

I had breakfast recently with a friend of mine and was surprised to find out that she was considering moving to Canada for political reasons. I get really frustrated at times but it had never occurred to me to leave, so I was more than a little bit surprised. Is she an anomaly or the very leading edge of a trend toward political emigration? Are we at the cusp of a values-mismatch-induced wave of departures?

The world’s political emigrants used to arrive here. But would Nabokov find solace in modern day America? Would Frank Capa leave Hungary for the U.S.? What parallels would George Orwell, veteran of the POUM militias, see between 1936 Spain and the modern day US?

America in the 40’s was an Air Conditioned Nightmare but it valued individualism (of the rugged variety), claimed and sometimes followed through on lofty values, and for at least a period in time was the porch light that attracted the fluttering intellectual diaspora of Fascist Europe and Communist-cum-Fascist Stalinist Russia. They landed on our shores as the least nightmarish locale of last resort.

Scholars say that Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading explores the loss of dignity that stems from forced conformity. Fair enough, but to me it is also about the sheer powerlessness of the individual when facing a capricious and angry State. I think of that book every time I see the imagery of a bound, dark-goggled, and only-recently-and-begrudgingly charged Jose Padilla escorted to his dental appointment by riot-gear-clad storm troopers. I close my eyes and find myself in Cincinattus’ cell, trapped by the absurdity of it all, while the mechanical spider descends on the unsuspecting moth. There but for the grace of God, or moment in history, go I.

I have a real problem with holding American citizens for years without charge in deplorable conditions under the simple and ludicrous dodge of labeling them “enemy combatants.” We are Americans dammit; we believe in trial by a jury of peers. It is fundamental to who we are. Let the banana republics and one-party pretend states have puppet trials. We intend justice and when we don’t achieve it it should be from flawed execution, not national policy.

I can’t talk to my solidly middle class friends about this issue though. To do so is to run the risk of a friendship-ending argument starting right after I hear: “They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a friggin terrorist;” and I think…

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a traitor of the revolution.” …. Citizen of Soviet Russia, 1936

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a fifth columnist and got what was coming to him.” … Citizen of Madrid, Spain, 1936

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s an enemy of the people and a reactionary paper tiger.” … Citizen of Beijing, China, 1988

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a counter-revolutionary.” … Citizen of Tehran, Iran anytime in the last 25 years

“Did they arrest him? Who? I never knew him.” … Citizen of Pyongyang, North Korea

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s a friggin terrorist.” American Citizen, 2006

“They wouldn’t have arrested him if he wasn’t guilty,… he’s an effin liberal, he used to write for the Times for Christ’s sake.”… American Citizen, 2012

Too many Americans today think the Bill of Rights is bullshit and only defends dirtbags and terrorists from what should be rightly coming to them. We, the graduates of school districts that dropped civics classes as a cost saving measure, forget that it really defends each and every one of us and our maybe someday unpopular views on religion, politics, and whatever else; or maybe just a vote for the wrong candidate.

When it becomes accepted that people disappear, they won’t just disappear because they are terrorists. They will disappear for all kinds of reasons that seem impossible to us today.

Maybe I was a naive midwesterner but I grew up proud to be an American. The Quiet American may have already been to Southeast Asia but Americans didn’t carry “papers or get permission to travel. Our grandfathers had fought the Fascists and our Fathers the Communists. Americans had conducted the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan, the reconstruction of Japan, … We were a free country while other poor bastards were running from the killing fields, taking up residence without right of correspondence in Lubyenka, or standing down tanks in Tienemen.

Maybe we always had our Abu Graibs, but I didn’t know about them and they hadn’t sullied our self-image and reputation throughout the world. In places like the Hanoi Hilton THEY tortured US and our heroes survived it with strength and honor. We had (we thought) the moral high ground and we (I) grew up disgusted with societies that would systematically torture.

Now we water board. We TORTURE people and we are good at it. Our popular culture icons would have us believe that laws are an obstacle to justice, rather than the means to it. We seem to think that “liberals” aren’t Americans. If talk show hosts are any indication some of us look forward to the day when they will be carried off and the rest of just sit here and listen without comment; no one speaks up; the so called silent majority stays silent.

In Spain the middle class fell into the arms of the Generallisimo out of a combined fear of communism and a grasping bourgeoisie. Today’s bogyman is Islamafascism and our growing middle class divide is creating our own big-screen-TV-coveting bourgeois class with similar grasping tendencies.

Do you remember the scene in Gladiator where they sit in the coliseum and watch the carnage? The Senator proclaims that to passify the masses a bloody spectacle is required… and we sit there in the theater and watch them watch. We, the masses turn away from our Halo II and Sin City l just long enough to dumbly take it in, while the blood lust rises in our own veins. Do you realize that the Senator is talking about us, with our popcorn in the theater? We, who don’t even notice, or care, when an American citizen is held in isolation for four years without being charged.

In the 1860’s the North and South came to an impasse over slavery and the economic and racial fears that were it’s first cousins; an impasse that couldn’t be resolved without Fort Sumpter and all the misery that followed. In the 1950’s J. Edgar Hoover scared the hell out of many Americans with his own brand of post-European-fascism fascism while he chased the red bogeyman into hiding; until his brand of excess culminated in Watergate and the (temporary) reassertion of the legislative and judicial branches.

So today the “liberal”/”right wing” divide is deeper than ever and influences how we as individuals view the fundamental American idea of innocent until proven guilty. We have faced these kinds of divides in our public consciousness before. Sometimes the perturbation initiated by fear damps out as reason and the middle gain ground, and sometimes there is a Fort Sumpter. It’s up to us, citizens of a democratic republic, to turn away from our polarizing cable feed long enough to say how this one will go. Pay attention, do the right thing, it matters.

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