Saturday, June 13, 2009

From October, 2004


A lot can happen in two weeks: in two weeks we go to the polls in what will be a crucial election. On November 2nd, we get to opt for regime change in Washington, and possibly eliminate what history may someday view as the greatest weapon of mass destruction the world has to worry about today –the man who is currently sitting in the White House.

We live in a world in which evil doesn’t distinguish itself by acts of terror, but by acts of righteousness; in which power and progress are too often inseparable. Regardless of which candidate, or party, you favor, the right to choose who your next president will be, and not have one chosen for you is more important now than ever before.

While voting is critical, there are some issues that transcend elections; indeed some issues speak to the core; the heart and framework on which our country was founded. Elections come and go; we have but one Constitution and we must call to task any president who challenges our rights under the First Amendment.

In the throes of party conflict, in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Alas, more than two hundred years later, we are still fighting this same tyranny.

Forty years ago, this December, over 800 students were arrested at the UC Berkeley campus over their right to use university facilities for their campaigns against the Vietnam War. Folk singers Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and others, were present for demonstrations at Sproul Hall back in the winter of 1964; the Free Speech Movement took a back seat then to protests against the war in Vietnam. We cannot, and will not, allow free speech to take a back seat to the war on terror now.

Two weeks ago, Howard Dean spoke at the U.C. Berkeley campus to commemorate this important 40th anniversary. Let it be known that, despite the war, despite the president, free speech will take a back seat to no one.

Let us support our libraries – booksellers; our privacy and constitutional right to assemble, and express dissent for our government. The Bill of Rights didn’t come with an expiration date. The freedom to read and write must not take a back seat to this war or any war; the First Amendment must not take a back seat to this president or any president; free speech must take a back seat to no one---not even George W. Bush.

While it may not seem that the differences between the two presidential candidates are great where the war in Iraq is concerned, where civil liberties are concerned, they are vast. It is this president’s goal to finalize “the Patriot Act” upon re-election. And, as William Carlos Williams once said: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Two weeks ago, a forum convened at Columbia University to remember the prophetic words of a graduate student Randolph Bourne who wrote, back in 1918, about the danger to civil liberties posed by war—about the use of institutionalized terror as a pretext to subvert the First Amendment; words that still ring true today.

He wrote: “With our deep seated distrust of social equality, our genius for race-prejudice, our inarticulateness and short-sightedness, it seems highly probable that we shall evolve away from democracy instead of toward it.”

Randolph Bourne died, in 1918, in his early 30’s, during a flu epidemic. A year later, John Dos Passos wrote that if ever a man had a ghost, it was Bourne “hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in downtown New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the state.”

Today, on the scarred streets of lower Manhattan, we see not only his ghost, but the specter of World War I, and the tyranny of “the State-obsessed herd” he warned of.
The war on terror is not the only time war has been used as justification for stifling dissent, or a “derangement of values” in which one is silenced, or punished, for expressing opinions that differ from national policy.

Our concerns “lest democracy suffer more at home from an America at war than could be gained for democracy abroad,” as Bourne suggests, are just as valid now.
The sense of government as a runaway train, and exemplar of the kind of dis-ease, and rancor, that goes back to the days when something was rotten in the state of Denmark prevails. The pathology of force, what Bourne calls “the terrorization of opinion,” has led, ironically enough, to legislation that claims to result from a “war on terror,” but which shows instead that the cure is often worse than the poison.

Historical ramifications of pending legislation, erroneously named for patriots, may prove even more menacing to those fundamental principles upon which our country was founded, such as religious freedom, than the bombing of the World Trade Center was. While the war may be different, the struggle remains the same: the threat to democracy looms as large, if not larger, today than when Randolph Bourne wrote the essay, “War is the Health of the State,” nearly a century ago, which he never did get to finish, and which we may yet finish for him.

Through gag orders and secret evidence, this administration is withholding vital information about its use of “the Patriot Act” to investigate Americans. The ACLU, Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program, and Core Freedoms Group are to be commended for their ongoing efforts to derail Section 215 of “the Patriot Act,” and to protect our right to reader privacy, confidentiality of our medical records, as well as the rights of journalists to withhold their sources.

As citizens, we must express our solidarity and support for our librarians who respect our right to read those materials we wish to read in confidence; we must affirm the right to buy those books we want to buy without surveillance, the right to visit those Web sites we want to visit without being monitored. We must not allow the war on terror to be used as yet another weapon of mass deception to divest us of our constitutional rights. We will make our voices heard before the FBI becomes the KGB.

Around the time of the First World War, a graduate student at Columbia spoke about using war as a pretext for suppressing civil liberties. Now, once again, we see our government busily engaged in chipping away at the First Amendment. We cannot, and will not, stand by and watch this administration’s jihad on the Constitution in the name of a war on terror. A federal appeals court ruled, in late October, that protestors may not be required to pass through metal detectors during a planned rally in November. We want to applaud this ruling that says quite simply: “September 11th cannot be the day liberty perished.”

As foot soldiers in the battle for free speech, our work does not end with the November 2nd election. We must continue to hold both candidates – both political parties, and all elected officials accountable for upholding those inalienable rights that are not a matter of privilege, but are the foundation of our democracy.

On Election Day, and thereafter, whoever occupies the Oval Office will be responsible, to posterity, for implementation of “the Patriot Act,” Section 215, and draconian measures currently being proposed by the GOP, in Congress, which, if passed, will give free rein to law enforcement, and state attorneys, to impose surveillance upon, and prosecute, those who they consider “terrorists,” domestic or otherwise, and/or those who consort with “terrorists.”

As artists and as human beings, we’re committed to launching a pre-emptive strike on any attempt to take us back to the days of Joe McCarthy, and the House Committee for Un-American Activities as indeed there are no patriots in “the Patriot Act” only saboteurs, and mockers, of those values which, for generations, have made us a safe haven for dissent, freedom of religion, and a free press.

We pledge to fight the good fight for those who have died, and continue to die, in the name of freedom. We will not have our libraries hi-jacked, and held hostage, by those who send our young men and women to war based on deception and lies. The future depends on the ongoing struggle for free speech, and against censorship, with or without regime change in Washington. Presidents come and go, but we have but one Constitution. If we tear down the foundation, the house too must fall.

A footnote: Following his re-election on November 2, 2004, President George W. Bush said he now has “political capital.” One can only hope he doesn’t spend it all in one place.

By: Jayne Lyn Stahl

“Bourne Again” was published in “Nuestra Voz (Vol. III),” a publication of International PEN Women Writers’ Conference., 2005”