Live Free and Die

Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human.

Originally published in the January 12th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press

The highest office in the land is the only job where applicants are rewarded for the level of disdain they express for the position they seek. The greater the antipathy toward government, the better the candidate connects with voters; or so it seems given the tenor of the GOP primary season. 

The image of the self-loathing politician promising to shrink the role of government in our lives is as old as the nation itself and usually appears during woeful economic times such as these. Of course, what someone utters on the campaign trail is almost always a far cry from how he speaks upon ascending to the Oval Office. Watching the current slate of GOP-hopefuls repackage this timeless anti-government dogma while vying for the single most powerful job in government is as ironic as it is ridiculous, but it is not without precedent. 

Many of the Founding Fathers were highly suspicious of government and the competence of the men seeking to run it. To them, government was a necessary evil, which is why so many provisions were enacted during America’s youth to protect its citizens from tyranny. But even the Founding Fathers weren’t immune to the awesome and corrupting power that accompanies the presidency. One early example was John Adams, one of the staunchest proponents of the Bill of Rights and the author of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which included many of the Constitutional amendments we hold so dear today. It was Adams who cajoled a reluctant James Madison to introduce the Bill of Rights in Congress to protect citizens from encroachments on their liberty. 

Only a few years later, Madison was jolted from retirement to join with Thomas Jefferson against an emboldened President Adams, who had recently signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, thus allowing the federal government to detain and arrest any citizen who spoke out against it. Adams was reacting to federalist fears triggered by watching the French Revolution turn ugly, and his paranoia was not without merit. But the totality of federal authority granted under these acts was so abhorrent to many of his contemporaries and fellow American revolutionaries it prompted the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions whereby these respective states unilaterally deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. 

Now put this conflict into its proper current context. Libertarians such as Ron Paul, the second-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, and free-market conservatives (every other GOP candidate including frontrunner Mitt Romney) routinely paint themselves as Jeffersonian state’s rights advocates. Paul, in particular, identifies strongly with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in spite of the fact that they were specific to the threat of the Alien and Sedition Acts and later were the primary separatist arguments upon which the Civil War was fought. While the larger field of candidates is likely incapable of discussing these measures in any thoughtful way, Paul has actually made a career arguing that these resolutions are somehow as sacrosanct as the Constitution itself. He has even gone so far as to criticize their demise under President Abraham Lincoln and has called the Civil War a “major setback” due to the “undermining of the principle of sovereign states.” In a statement made on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2004, which was re-circulated by the organization Campaign For Liberty over the summer, Paul lamented this development saying, “The Civil War profoundly changed the balance of power in our federalist system, paving the way for centralized big government.”

Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human. 

Beyond the unintended consequence of setting the stage for the Civil War, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions did serve to unify the Democratic-Republican Party (later just the Democratic Party) against the Federalists and Adams’ frightful encroachments on individual liberties. But the fight with Adams was cover for the real issue that divided the nascent empire: taxes. 

Most of the Founding Fathers were opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s insistence upon centralizing and maintaining a strong federal treasury. They opposed it, that is, until it was their time to lead the nation as president. America’s ability to purchase land, fight skirmishes at home or wage war on the high seas was impossible without levying taxes upon its citizens: an early example of the evaporating campaign promise. When it comes to dollars and cents, ideology cannot overcome fiscal reality. 

It’s one of the reasons why our economy is struggling so badly today. Believing that war somehow pays for itself and, even more magically, stimulates growth, the Bush administration chose to ignore history and embroil the nation in two costly wars while simultaneously cutting taxes to anemic levels. This type of disconnect is central to the Republican psychology of this presidential campaign and each candidate’s continued misinterpretation of the Founding Fathers.

As much as the Jeffersonians were ideologically opposed to a strong central bank and morally opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts, they were pragmatists. Their fight against the latter gave spirit to the party, the former provided substance. Same concept, different century. 

Mind you, the GOP isn’t alone in their disassociation between candidacy and presidency. Take the curious case of candidate Barack Obama, self-proclaimed expert on the Constitution who signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 on New Year’s Eve, which includes the controversial indefinite detention provision that has libertarians and others going berserk. As well it should. It’s a confusing bundle of words that, in conjunction with the authority granted to the government under the Patriot Act, theoretically provides President Obama with powers dangerously akin to those bestowed on President Adams by the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

So while pundits split hairs over who hates government the most and which candidate has been married the longest, we’ve tragically lost our place in our own history. And so here we are again: back where we started, none the wiser and with little to show for our experience.

Occupy Wall Street: “You Should Have Expected Us”

By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it.

San Francisco has it. So does Boston. It’s heading to Phoenix, Chicago and even making its way across the border to Toronto. “It” is the movement the media only acknowledge when it shuts down a bridge or broadcasts police brutality. “It” is the movement that Glenn Beck claims will lead to “gas chambers, guillotines” and “millions dead.”

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its third week. It’s stubborn, plucky, organized and here to stay—weather and cops be damned. For the third week in a row I am dedicating this space to an undertaking so captivating it has garnered grassroots support throughout the country despite obvious and ignominious attempts to stamp it out. Forgive me as I provide some context to my preoccupation by regurgitating a segment of this column written only days before the occupation began:

Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept. Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?

As it turns out, America’s youth is keenly in touch with its rebellious nature and wholly capable of harnessing it through social media and on the ground. Moreover, it seems, they know exactly how to protest derivatives and tax loopholes. Occupy Wall Street is not an exercise; nor is it a group of out-of-work malcontents and spoiled brats as some pundits and commentators would have you all believe. But given the disgraceful job my colleagues in the “traditional” media have done covering the last three weeks, it’s little wonder there is such a misconception about the protest or the character of the protestors themselves.

Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and other hack, ratings-hungry news operations have done their level-best to seek out the most outrageous or ill-informed members of the movement in an effort to discredit the entire affair. This has served only to embolden the members of the occupation and play directly into the hands of the organizers who are able to maintain their underground “street-cred” while pointing a finger at corporate media with righteous indignation. It’s one of several ingenious ploys (or anti-ploys depending upon which side of the barricade you reside) being exploited by Anonymous, the group at the heart of the protest.

Most of the news reports and the people I speak with about Occupy Wall Street have the same question: “What do they want?” It’s little wonder why the reporting has been so poor because the question itself fails to grasp the meaning of the gathering. Asking “What do they want?” is placing the cart before the horse. It’s not that it’s a bad question; it’s simply impossible to answer. The purpose of Occupy Wall Street is to begin a dialogue among disconnected citizens and encourage a process of self-discovery. Although they have posted a declaration of principles that lists pernicious policies and highlights social and economic inequities, it only serves to provide the framework for the discussion.

But behind this grassroots and organic process is an organizational brilliance in the restraint shown by Anonymous and the surreptitious group in charge of the demonstration on the ground. By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it. It’s why dimwitted reporters have a hard time grasping it and why renowned authors such as Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlet have been here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young people in Ron Paul tee shirts, Vietnam Veterans, union construction workers, lawyers and even some Tea Party activists. They have managed to truly make this the “people’s movement.” Or, as they say: “We are the 99%… and so are you.”

Life In The Park

As for life in Zuccotti Park, the scene is rather surreal. Between the time I first visited the encampment on Day 4 and Day 18 on Tuesday of this week, a mini-city had emerged. Rules of conduct are posted along the walls of the park. There is a media center, a volunteer booth, food line, barrels of drinking water, a compost pile, rows of books and a tobacco-rolling station. They even have their own newspaper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Every evening at 7 p.m. there is a General Assembly meeting where the faithful gather to air their grievances, plan for the days ahead, and coalesce some of the more substantive ideas that have percolated throughout the long days of demonstration, learning and discovery.

In the morning I caught up with Julian, who had casually greeted me on Day 4 with a warm and comfortable smile. Upon hearing of the protest, Julian had purchased a one-way ticket from Oregon to attend the occupation. He couldn’t say how long he would be there, only that he planned to stick it out as long as possible. This time around, Julian had the look of someone who had spent the better part of two and a half weeks battling sleeplessness and, at times, punishing weather. He was grittier and weary, though he claimed to have finally snagged a decent night’s rest.

“I would say this has far exceeded my expectations” he said, a hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind one ear and a scraggly beard adorning his tired face. “The growth of the movement speaks to the level of despair in this country and desire for change,” he said, as he greeted another volunteer who clapped him on the back and hung close for our conversation. When I asked whether he had booked that return ticket yet, his warm smile returned as he said, “I decided to keep the next six months to a year totally clear.” Politely, he then excused himself and settled in behind the volunteer table. Julian was all in.

I spent the next couple of hours weaving my way between citizen journalists, musicians, poets, activists, union workers and teachers. Another familiar face from the first week was Gio Andollo, an artist and musician from Harlem who has spent “some part of the day, every day and usually nights” at the protest since it began. He too is committed to occupying Wall Street for “as long as it takes,” and thinks the protestors have “done a really good job of diffusing potentially violent situations.” Gio, like so many of those involved in the Occupy Wall Street protest, is disappointed with the media coverage but shrugs it off. “What we’re trying to accomplish here doesn’t lend itself to media-friendly sound bites,” he says. But unlike others who cry foul at the blatantly misdirected coverage of the protest, Gio is somewhat sanguine. “It’s just a matter of time before even politicians start paying attention.”

Ironically, across the plaza a group began to gather around two men who clearly stood out from the crowd. Lo and behold, politicians had finally found their way to Zuccotti Park to engage the activists in person. City Council Members Daniel Halloran (R-Queens) and Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) took center stage for a while to participate in the ongoing dialogue with Wall Street occupiers. Halloran, a self-proclaimed Libertarian Republican, told those around him that he supported their “constitutional right” to gather in protest, but the only way out of America’s economic mess was to “elect better people” to office and “get out and fucking vote.” He touched on hot button issues like diminishing the influence of the Federal Reserve and putting “teeth back into anti-trust regulations,” while Rodriguez, no stranger to controversy and an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street, said, “Wall Street should contribute more,” instead of the city having to “cut agencies and education.”

Despite advocating for things over which neither councilman has control, they caused a stir by at least engaging in the conversation. But their presence only highlights the lack of support and involvement from the elected federal representatives who have stayed as far from the protest as humanly possible. But then again, as Gio pointed out, it’s just a matter of time.

The “Occupy” demonstrations sprouting up around the nation illustrate the strange and uneasy predicament we face. On one side, we see a group of disenfranchised Americans taking to the streets to raise awareness of an increasingly inequitable economic system by exercising their First Amendment right to gather peaceably and protest their grievances. On the other side of the spectrum are charlatans like Glenn Beck, who is warning his ever-dwindling flock of minions to stock up on food and guns because young people have decided to mobilize against the government—pretty fucking hilarious coming from a false-wannabe-prophet who organized his own march in D.C. against the very same government.

Here’s the funny thing. The smallest step back from the fray only serves to highlight our similarities rather than our differences. Like diminutive points on an impressionist painting, there is room in America for every color, from the muted tones of conservatism to the most colorful hue of progressivism. Independent of one another they inevitably clash, but when blended together on the artist’s canvas the true portrait of America is revealed—but only from a distance. In Zuccotti Park, Anonymous may have just emerged as one of the great impressionist masters of our time, portraying America at its finest and capturing the single greatest expression of democracy to occur in my lifetime.