Sunday, June 1, 2008

Down the Tracks; Perilious Times, Geoffrey R. Stone

In the live version of "Living in the Future" Springsteen has criticized certain aspects of President Bystander's policies. In a speech where Springsteen recounts some of the good thing we all cherish about the US, from cheese burgers to the freedom of speech he warns night after night; "along with all the things that we love about the place we live, in the last six years we´ve had to add to the American picture things like illegal wiretapping, an attack on our Constitution, a rollback of civil liberties, rendition, those are the things that ain´t supposed to be happening here that are happening here now." A question that has been on my mind is if that critique is fair, if it isn't an oversimplification of the President's blundering. Though I might be misinterpreting the man, the speech reeks of a nostalgia to an America that never was. Of course R&R shows do not leave a whole lot of room for nuance, we wouldn't want the Boss trading "Badlands" for a lengthy dissertation, but still. America as I know it has always been marred by a strained relationship with its constitution, there have always been currents in the US that have felt that the constitution leaves too many liberties. America, to me, always seems like a concept or a dream that never has been fully realized. So in my mind Springsteen is referring to an America that never existed, but only dreamed of by the more idealistic Americans. Dubya isn't singular in his curtailing of civil liberties.

Placed in the context of Geoffrey R. Stone's book, "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime", you might even want to conclude that Bush is progress in a history of ignoring the constitution during war time. At the hand of a few select conflicts in which the US was involved, ranging from the sedition act to the current War on Terror , Stone demonstrates that rights didn't always mean certainties in the US. The constitution might have been set in stone, more than once it was pushed aside gathering moss. Though New York Times notable book, "Perilous Times" is quite the academic read. Though Stone's uses clear language, the content is a bit dry from time to time. Mostly because Stone doesn't deal with case studies of actual people who became victims of their time, but makes an effort to clarify the currents that gnawed at the constitution over that passed two centuries. Still, even when you're not an academic, "Perilous Times" is a great read if you feel the desire to place Springsteen's political rants into context.

Because Stone puts certain periods in time under the microscope, a full read of the 560 pages isn't strictly necessary. Maybe to gain some understanding it is enough to read the chapter on the Cold War and McCarthyism. Stone is effective in demonstrating how that period was a turning point in American politics. Fueled by the Cold War, Joseph McCarthy was the first politician to win his place in the Senate by red baiting. During his campaign McCarthy took quite a few liberties with the truth to secure his place in Washington. "Tail Gunner Joe" who never was a tail gunner, won with a two to one margin by making his opponents look suspect. Every social democratic measure proposed by the other candidates was slandered as being Communist by McCarthy. In a period of heightened tension between Russia and the US, McCarthy would soon prove to be the powder keg that threatened to blow up the constitution, including freedom of speech. If red baiting wasn't enough to intimidate the more liberal candidates into abandoning social policies, McCarthy soon 'produced' a list of over 200 spies in civil service. The supposed list, to this day it is uncertain if McCarthy ever had one, led to the Tydings Committee, investigating civil servants, and McCarthy's place on the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. With initial support of the Kennedy family and a broad backing amongst Republicans McCarthy unleashed a which hunt that destroyed the careers of hundreds and even had some imprisoned. With the help of a few select disloyalty acts, McCarthy managed to make any social sympathy look suspect. From your neighbor to the stars of Hollywood, to George C. Marshall, architect of the Marshall plan, all became subversive in McCarthy's world.

To his credit Stone not only demonstrates the parallels between the Bush administration and the McCarthy hearings but also demonstrates how Bush is a step up from former perilous times. Stone shows the similarities between McCarthy's red baiting and Bushes "You're either with us or with the terrorists". Like McCarthy, president Bush has tried to make any criticism on US policy look suspect, maybe even bullying congress into abandoning their critique on the PATRIOT act and the invasion of Iraq. Bush effectively used the terrorist scare to curtail civil liberties, which in the immediate after math of 9/11 didn't seem all that important any more. Optimistic as Stone is however, while demonstrating on one hand that Bush's policies fall into an American political tradition, he also shows how America has learned from history. Stone rightfully credits Bush with reaching out to the Muslim community in the US, trying to diffuse an automatic notion of suspicion. He also applauds Bush for not prosecuting anybody who protested his administration's policies against terrorism. Such nuance in Stone's writing make his warnings on the implications of the PATRIOT act carry all the more gravity, you cannot accuse Stone of walking partisan lines. Stone is equally fair and critical with Democratic policy makers as he is with Republicans. Stone's ability to maintain an academic objectivity while writing on measures that gets the blood boiling of anybody who cares for the American constitution, makes this book an essential read on the subject.

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