DADT and Parliamentary Procedure: a Historical Perspective

History is a tricky thing. On one hand, those who do not study it they say are destined to repeat it. On the other hand, interpreting history is a subjective exercise and often done in remarkably one-dimensional, self-serving manner. I generally avoid the use historical paradigms on this website largely for this reason. Because as an amateur student of history, I am all too aware of how nuance gives way to silly posturing, straw men and logical fallacies conveniently packaged as history lessons.

It is also for this reason that I have been unable to address the Tea Party movement in any meaningful way. I’ve discussed its members, I’ve discussed some electoral politics here, on the DFE FaceBook Page and on the Twitter feed. But I have yet to have addressed the movement as an object on its own, because I find the whole historical inspiration of the movement too insulting and infuriating to manage to piece together a cohesive argument. I don’t begrudge them their beliefs or political leanings; I don’t begrudge them their solidarity. Hell, I don’t even begrudge them their oft-disavowed but painfully omnipresent racism and xenophobia: such things don’t need my help to collapse under their own weight. But I do begrudge them their historical premise.

Let the Average Joe Tea Party go. But I really want to ask Dick Armey and the leaders of the various strands of the Tea Party movement, “do you really think – honestly? truly? – that Britons killed Britons over tea? Do you really believe – honestly? truly? – that Britons killed Britons over a modest increase in the nominal tax rate for high-earners? And do you seriously believe that Samuel Adams could have mustered the support of twelve other colonies to break from the Mother Country over a health insurance plan? If not, how is this whole Tea Party thing not just a little bit insulting to our Founders?”

But nuance, as usual, gives way to silly posturing. And in this case, hats.

Certainly, the Revolution was sparked by taxes and certainly it was instigated with brush fires like the Boston Tea Party. But even closer to the source of the actual friction between Britain and the Colonies was Parliament’s self-aggrandizing obsession with it’s own rules and procedures, at the expense of its actual duty to govern the country. We know the phrase “no taxation without representation in Parliament,” but what is less-well understood is that Parliament was not blindly ignoring the complaints of the American Colonies: it was operating under a set of rules it believed genuinely covered the Colonies without the need to adjust the way it did business. The charter that founded Parliament accomplished two necessary functions of a democracy. First, it established the Parliament as representative of the citizens of Britain. Second, it established Parliament as the sole origin of the laws that governed the whole of the British Empire. But when that charter was written, it didn’t take into account a large population of Britons now living in a conquered part of the Empire as indigenous people. There was no “redistricting” the British Parliament.

So at loggerheads were two entirely correct propositions: the common understanding of representative democracy on the American side and the supremacy of the Parliament as a legal body on the other. But in response to this growing and seemingly obvious contradiction, Parliament chose to worship its own rules and procedures rather than address any concern outside of them. That the American condition was in direct conflict with the founding principles of the Parliament – principles for which many commoners very much like the American Colonists fought and died – was of less importance to the Parliament than the orderly adherence to the rules that had governed it since then. And in response to the growing unrest across the ocean, the Parliament whose sovereignty over the Colonies lay at the heart of the conflict opted to pass more soveriegn laws: the Townshend Acts, the Stamp Act and finally the suite of nearly unenforceable Acts known as the Coersive Acts.

One lesson that might be taken from this history is that a parliamentary body more interested in itself than its job will leave an alienated populace to take matters into it’s own hands. Does that mean revolution? Of course not. But it is a lesson in disenfranchisement of a type that, for all the bluster, pomp and circumstance of Washington, I personally never really thought we would see in this country. Until recently.

Because when we view history and the present through this lens, what are we to make of Susan Collins’ decision to block the revocation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? She is not an opponent of the fight against the discriminatory law that forces soldiers to lie about who they are. Indeed, she is a full-throated supporter of the effort. She doesn’t have any objection to the DREAM Act, either. There doesn’t seem to have been a single issue in the defense spending package with which she had a difference. Not a moral objection. Not a single ethical disagreement. And she would have had the support of an overwhelming majority of American voters, as well. The sole objection upon which she declared her willingness to join in the Republican filibuster was…. parliamentary procedure. That Democrats opted not to allow any more Republican amendments to a spending bill. And in retaliation for an extra-Constitutional parliamentary procedure she found unjust, she chose to support yet another extra-Constitutional parliamentary procedure.

For all the impassioned speech-giving prior to casting her vote, it boils down to taking her job as a Senator more seriously than her job as a lawmaker for the American people and those she represents. Say what you will about the pre-Revolutionary British Parliament, they at least passed and argued over laws. Susan Collins held civil rights of gays and innocent child-imigrants back from history for who knows how long because of arbitrary rules setup in the Senate which have no basis in law whatsoever.

Of course it isn’t the only example. If it was, this would be an isolated incident we could just leave aside. But Washington is starting to look more and more like a place completely unprepared to fulfill its duties, and that is especially true in the House and Senate, where the day to day football of the Congress matters much more than the 10% unemployment rate, the faltering housing market, the runaway banks, the crushed working man and oh, yeah: the will of the governed.


Breaking With the President on Torture

Readers of this website know I have made no secret of my support for President Barack Obama. That support remains unflagging to this point. But politicians have one set of agendas, and the people another, so there is a time for all of us to break with our supported politicians and pressure them to do things they don’t want to do. I say this not as an apologia, but because the media’s insistence on a purely dualistic world of supporters and detractors completely obscures the meaning of the term “loyal opposition.” Opposition to your president does not necessarily presuppose hateful invectives.

Such is the case with the torture investigations. Clearly, Obama is not in favour of going forward with them. And as a practical matter, I don’t necessarily blame him: he’s not just the president, he is also a president, which means he has the power to make or break precedent in the Oval Office and so does his next successor. The precedent set here might be that a sitting president can prosecute a former president for misdeeds in office. Presidents have generally been very reluctant to do this for a simple reason: regardless of the justness of a given prosecution, the precedent leaves itself open to politically-motivated abuse down the line. Just as many of us have argued in the cases of eavesdropping and other violations of civil rights under the Bush Administration, the justness of motivation does not always outweigh the potential for abuse in the future.

And mindful as I am of that dangerous precedent, there has to be some point at which the potential threat of abuse is outweighed by the clear danger presented by the violations of the former administration. In this case, we’re not dealing with illegal actions that lived in a bubble, cut off from effect the moment President Bush left office. What we have is, again, a dangerous precedent that says that when a president wants to do something, all he needs is a few pliable lawyers to write grade-school legal justifications and he’s off to the races. And not just “something.” We’re talking about torturing human beings. . . on top of wrongful incarceration and illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens. Taken as a whole, the Bush Administration opened up a little slice of totalitarianism that must – must – be closed, nailed shut and boarded up forever.

And what’s more, I think that there is also a political reality right now that cannot be ignored and in this one case, should not be ignored. The same wave of realization and needful correction that brought Barack Obama to power also drives the need to redress this most awful of crimes against the American consciousness. He cannot turn that tide back without crushing himself in the process.

Between the American public’s obvious need for self-correction and the institutional need for justice, the need to break with the president and make him do something unprecedented is overwhelming. And for the first time, we see Barack Obama being overtaken by the wave rather than riding it. This is what it means to be president, sometimes. This is what it means to elect one, too. As troublesome as the situation is and as dangerous as the path before us may be, for the benefit of our president and our nation, we must continue to push him to investigate the torture policies instituted by the Bush Administration.



It’s exactly this kind of clumsy language that cost Mrs. Clinton the primary and it’s exactly this kind of clumsy language we hope she can avoid in the future in her role as the chief diplomat of the worlds last remaining superpower.

I understand what she’s saying – and even agree with it, to the extent that a failed world economy necessarily means more human rights violations around the world – but seriously? Without being a career politician, I can think of better ways to says this.


Shock the Conscience

Do not click on this link unless you’re sure you’re ready.  This was done at Abu Ghraib in your name.  Let us not pretend that this was either an isolated incident or the act of a few bad apples.


About Last Summer: Our Bad.

Hey, Brittan.  It’s us, the United States.  You look good today.

So, yeah.  Remember that whole big flap thing about the “extraordinary rendition,” and how you said that none of our planes used to render prisoners had refueled on your bases anywhere?  Yeah, what a pisser that whole thing was, eh?  With the media and the parliament and all.  So last week. . .   Well, the darnedest thing happened.

Seems some guys down at the State Department accidentally left a box of floppies next to the toaster in the break room, and well, we just found them.  We’re always telling those guys not to bring their office stuff into the break room, but you know how it is, sometimes.  Anyway, it turns out that there may have been one, possibly two, of our planes that refueled in Diego Garcia.

I mean, with a name like Diego Garcia, who would have thought that was one of your guy’s bases anyway, right?  Don’t you guys normally name things like, “Her Majesty’s blah-blah-blah,” and stuff like that? You guys always name stuff after your queen chicks and such, and the English ones, not like the French ones and definitely no Spanish ones, if you have any of those lying around.

Well, the thing is, we know this might be a bit of a bummer for you.  But you guys got a new Prime Minister, so maybe if you just play cool, it’ll all blow over.  If you guys have anyone you need to render, we can totally hook you up, seriously.  Just ask.

We cool?  Awesome.


Oh, Well. That’s Different, Then. . . ?

Just so you don’t think that Saudi Arabian law is at all unreasonable, justices in the Hizzle of Saudizizzles inform us that the woman who was gang-raped and then sentenced to 200 lashes was in fact having an affair:

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saudi rape victim ‘having affair’

Saudi justice officials say a woman who was sentenced to prison and flogging after she was gang-raped has now confessed to an extramarital affair.

OIC. . . .

Saudi justice is like the Dimsdale of Justice, “A hard man, but fair.” (This reference is extremely obscure. If you get it, you probably grew up with an Atari Tan, like me)

But you’ll be happy to note that the United States, a chief ally of the Saudis, has wasted no time in responding to the verdict:

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saudi rape victim ‘having affair’

Several governments and human rights groups have condemned her sentence and urged it to be lifted. Canada described it as “barbaric”. The US, a major Saudi ally, declined to condemn to sentence, but did call it “astonishing”.

Wow. They couldn’t even muster up a “grave concern,” for this poor woman?