Water Man Spouts

Sunday, July 08, 2007

We the People

{1} Al Gore is providing Americans with a type of leadership that transcends partisan politics. His leadership is based upon a type of authority that weak individuals, such as George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, can never exercise. While Bush and Cheney can use the power of their political machine in only a destructive manner, Al Gore is showing Americans the path we must take to transform this nation back into the Constitutional democracy that we are supposed to enjoying.

Will Gore eventually enter the democratic primary? Some people speculate he will, while others believe that he is unlikely to become a candidate. Today, I believe that speculating on that issue is less interesting – and indeed, far less important – than focusing on how Al Gore is participating in every race, from school board to mayor to senator to president.

Two things stand out: the earth-consciousness festival, and his book "The Assault on Reason." Both are outstanding. Today, I would like to discuss a few thoughts about the book, and try to do so in the context of the leadership, power, and authority that Al Gore is helping the public to access.

In the book’s introduction, Gore writes, "Whether it is called a public forum or a public sphere or a marketplace of ideas, the reality of open and free public discussion and debate was considered central to the operation of our democracy in America’s earliest decades. Our first self-expression as a nation – ‘We the People’ – made it clear where the ultimate source of authority lay. It was universally understood that the ultimate check and balance for American government was its accountability to the people. And the public forum was the place where people held government accountable. That is why it was so important that the marketplace of ideas operated independent from and beyond the authority of government."

Gore notes that there are three "important characteristics of this marketplace of ideas": First, that it is open to everyone. He recognizes that literacy is an important factor in making it open to all, and that this is the key to the power to both receive and contribute information in the discussion. Second, Gore states that ideas are to be considered on their own merits, rather than the wealth and/or social class of the person advancing them. And third, he states that the "conversation of democracy" is based upon the assumption that those who participate will be "governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement."

He also expresses his concern that the "print-based public sphere that had emerged from the books, pamphlets, and essays of the Enlightenment has, in the blinking eyes of a single generation, come to seem as remote as the horse and buggy." (See pages 11-13.)

{2} One of the most important books for understanding the threat posed to our Constitutional democracy by the Bush-Cheney administration is "The Imperial Presidency," by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr (Houghton Mifflin Company; 1973). In it, the former aide to President Kennedy traces the historic tensions between the three branches of our federal government. This includes how the executive branch has attempted to use war to justify claims for increased presidential powers. The book includes the attempts of both democratic and republican presidents to use the threat of conflict to do this.

In the period when Schlesinger wrote his book, Richard Nixon was abusing the powers of the executive office. Schlesinger was an advocate of impeachment. "In that spirit," he wrote, "I would argue that what the country needs today is a little serious disrespect for the office of the Presidency; a refusal to give any more weight to a President’s words than the intelligence of the utterance, if spoken by anyone else, would command; an understanding of the point made so aptly by Montaigne: ‘Sit he on never so high a throne, a man still sits on his own bottom’." (page 411)

It is clear that Schlesinger and Gore are describing much the same concept – a person’s opinions should be judged upon their value, not by the position or wealth of the person uttering them. That is the essence of true democracy. And we find, when we are exposed to the wisdom of a Schlesinger or a Gore, that they value history. They recognize that rational people can take the words of insightful and intelligent people from the past, and apply those words to the current situation.

Compare that to the utterances of George W. Bush: rather than having a president who focuses on the teachings of a Jefferson or an FDR, we have a fellow who constantly speaks of the threats that we face. Rather than attempting to instill confidence, this president sows the seeds of paranoia and fear. He and vice president Cheney do this in an attempt to grab a level of power that goes beyond what Schlesinger called "the imperial presidency," and in fact is engaged in actions that are those of a "revolutionary presidency."

Bush and Cheney attempt to exercise what is known as "overt authority." It is very different than the type of authority that Al Gore represents. Those who enjoy reading recognize the type of thinking that is associated with Bush and Cheney as having been described by John Dean in his wonderful book, "Conservatives Without Conscience." Although Dean does not seem familiar with Erich Fromm’s 1941 work, his book addresses many of the same issues that Fromm covered in "Escape From Freedom." The truth remains constant, and can be applied in 2007 just as it was 66 years ago.

Overt authority does not seek to expand individual citizens’ right. It uses fear, anxiety, and paranoia to justify its attempts to restrict those individual freedoms we recognize as being provided by our Bill of Rights. On August 9, 1975, FBI Director Clarence Kelley said, "We must be willing to surrender a small measure of our liberties to preserve the great bulk of them." This is the constant untruth that avert authority attempts to convince the public of. It’s no different today than it was in the summer of 1975.

Many citizens are concerned by the administration’s moves to have federal police agencies spy on civilians. This is the same concern that Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson expressed in 1955: "I cannot say that our country could have no central police without becoming totalitarian, but I can say with great conviction that it cannot become totalitarian without a centralized national police …. A national police … will have enough on people, even if it does not elect to prosecute them, so that it will find no opposition to its policies" (The Supreme Court in the American System of Government).

{3} When we witness any person say that we can no longer afford the full Constitution of the United States, and that the Bill of Rights is out-dated and needs to be somehow restricted, that they are agents of avert authority. They may mean well, but their minds have been poisoned by fear, anxiety, and paranoia. As Al Gore points out in his book, the dangers we face from externalenemies is no greater today than it was in the past. The greater danger we face are from "leaders" who fear the essence of democracy, and who seek to reduce our freedoms and restrict public debate on important issues.

Yet as others have noted in the past, we can not afford to see all of the weaknesses and dangers as coming from the republican Schlesinger points out democratic administrations who have attempted to expand executive power. And Erich Fromm wrote of another type of authority that is not restricted to any one party. It is "anonymous authority," and it has the same potential to reduce the public discussion and debate at the local level as at the state of national level. It tends to be found in groups and organizations that run as machines.

"Overt authority is exercised directly and explicitly," Fromm wrote in the foreword to A.S. Neill classic "Summerhill." He continues, "The person in authority frankly tells the one who is subject to him, ‘You must do this. If you do not, certain sanctions will be applied against you.’ Anonymous authority tends to hide that force is being used. Anonymous authority pretends that there is no authority, that all is being done with the consent of the individual. While the teacher of the past said to Johnny, ‘You must do this. If you don’t, I’ll punish you’; today’s teacher says, ‘I’m sure you’ll like to do this.’ Here, the sanction for disobedience is not corporal punishment, but the suffering face of the parent, or what is worse, conveying the feeling of not being ‘adjusted,’ of not acting as the crowd acts. Overty authority used physical force; anonymous authority employs psychic manipulation."

We must be on guard for those who attempt to employ the type of manipulation that Fromm speaks of. Again, like those who are agents of avert authority, these people may be sincere in their beliefs. But their beliefs are too often the type that would restrict the public discussions and debates that people like Gore and Schlesinger, and Dean and Fromm, recognized as essential for a healthy democracy.

We do well, instead, to read and learn from those leaders who exercised that other type of authority that does not require that anyone’s rights be restricted. We need to apply those leaders’ teachings to today. The great thing is that our nation has produced many such leaders. We can benefit from the works of our Founding Fathers, and from the great leaders from the generations that followed.

Those who tell us that we should not listen to the powerful message of Al Gore today, are the same types as who have said in the past that we should not listen to Robert Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr. They are the same people who have always tried to restrict the national discussion that Al Gore notes is so important to a healthy democracy. We should never allow them to restrict the national marketplace of ideas. We can not allow them to define the boundary of debate on issues regarding the need to end the war in Iraq, Schlesinger’s recommendations on impeachment, or what candidates or platform we must accept.

And when we do that, we begin to exercise the force of democracy that Al Gore advocates: We the People.


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