Monday, March 26, 2007

"Vito Says..."

Today, we look to the past for a glimpse of what the present looks like to us, returning with an installation of “Vito Says...” on matters pertaining to civil rights.

Vito Marcantonio was an extreme champion of civil rights, defending W.E.B. Dubois in one case, and the Communist Party of the United States in another, at the height of the cold war Red Scare days.

“Vito Says...” was developed when the highway scribe was reading “Vito Marcantonio: Debates, Speeches and Writings 1935-1950,” and noticed a shocking similarity between some of the big questions of those days and those of today.

The impetus for today’s review of Marcantonio’s congressional speeches is the news, which came out last week, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had abused the already abusive powers granted them in the Patriot Act, by issuing 140,000 “national security letters” between 2003 and 2005.

These letters relieve law enforcement of the necessity to get approval for obtaining “electronic records,” which is where your whole life is stored, without the approval of a judge. Originally, you had to be suspected of something for such a letter to be issued.

After 9/11, the same senators now railing against its abuses obliged the Bush administration’s request to pass The Patriot Act, which removed the necessity you be suspected of doing something for a letter to be issued. So long as the WAR ON TERROR is raged, being at the same party as some sketchy character will be enough to make one “relevant” to a terrorism case.

the scribe first heard about these letters while sitting on an airplane in front of two beefy, mustachioed, neck-tied, conservative business-types.

The jist of their conversation was that each had received such a letter requesting information on people they worked for and did business with. They thought the cost of complying was unfair, said it had disrupted their ability to wage commerce, and wound things up with some good old-fashioned American sentiment on personal freedom.

It was on that flight, after that conversation, the scribe realized politics was shifting in the country.

Apparently, these two gents didn’t give a hoot-and-holler about the gag order accompanying the letters, but last Thursday, the “Washington Post,” ran an anonymous Op-ed written by a businessman who did.

He was president of small Internet access and consulting business. You remember the Internet don’t you? It’s where these ideas and arguments are posted. They wanted to know about one of his clients. You, it should be pointed out, are a “client” of somebody like this.

He thought the FBI was abusing its power, contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a suit rooted in constitutional challenges. The FBI gave up, but the gag order persists for reasons, naturally, of national security.

“Living under the gag order has been stressful and unreal,” writes this man obligated by government caveat to conceal his own identity. “Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case – including the mere fact that I received [a letter] – from my colleagues, my family and friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.”

Does that sound like life in a 200-plus year-old venerable democracy or East Germany in a John LeCarre novel?

“C’mon scribe, we’re at war with Islamo-Fascists whose values are completely contrary to ours, a bunch of fanatics who hate our freedom and want to destroy our way of life!”

highwayscribery would argue that in the matter of national security letters, and The Patriot Act in general, the Islamo-Fascists have made progress.

On July 30, 1940, Vito Marcantonio took to the radio to denounce legislation signed by President Truman requiring all foreigners over the age of 14 to register their presence at the nearest post office. It was the eve of World War II, communism was surging internationally and so was Fascism.

Vito says: “In a period as trying as this the test of democracy lies in the ability of that democracy to maintain its liberties and to have more freedom rather than less freedom. The test of a democracy lies in its ability preserve its institutions.”

The anonymous gentleman in “The Post,” resented his “conscription” as a secret informer for the government, and said the gag orders were pernicious given that those who suspected the FBI of abuse could say nothing without being tossed in jail.

“At some point,” he concluded, “the secrecy becomes a threat to our democracy.”

Vito could not have agreed more:

“I submit that the best way to preserve the American way of life is to preserve our liberties. American democracy can live only by letting it live. Limiting it will not permit it to live. It will choke and kill it. Only by strict adherence to the Declaration of Independence, only by strict adherence to the Bill of Rights, only by the militant and vigilant realization that there are no ‘ifs and that there are no ‘buts’ to these great principles of our country, can we successfully defend our American way of life.”

You might say: “So what, Marcantonio was the was the sole congressional representative of the American Labor Party (ALP) - a communist front cooked up by New York unions to channel votes FDR’s way.”

Vito might say you were using, “the red herring to conceal the lack of pork chops.”

But the scribe would tell you that, for one, Marc was not always alone in Congress, joined for a time by ALP counterpart Leo Isacson; and that two, the “Los Angeles Times,” has just published an editorial issuing a general cry for a “reigning in” Patriot Act abuses, which is not the same thing Vito says, but is certainly “relevant” to it.

At a time when the administration has chosen to escalate the war in Iraq in spite of a solid public opinion to contrary, it is important we help clarify the mission, which is/was the creation of democracy in Iraq (among others).

Vito Says: “The best demonstration of our sincerity to extend democracy all over the world is for us to extend it now, before the war is over, to everyone within our own borders.”

You see, everything that is old, is new again.

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