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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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April 21, 2013

I Am Not A Radical

An offhand comment sets the blogger ranting about the Bill of Rights and the prescient observations of Alexis DeTocqueville

Some weeks ago I was in the company of two Albany elected officials, one of whom I particularly respect and get along with well. (Yes, there are a few.) They introduced me to a third person, giving the usual “He writes a blog” which serves also as a warning to the unwary. Then the friendlier elected official, the one I get along with well, told the third party that I was “a radical.”

Puzzled, I said, “That’s not true, I consider myself a centrist.” Both officials looked at me with raised eyebrows and then glanced at each other. Then they both nodded at the third party. “He’s a radical,” they both said.

Well slap me silly and call me Betty. Where does that come from?

Radical Liberals Engaged In Violent Action
Radical Liberals Engaged In Violent Action

Nasty people say all kinds of things about me behind my back, I’ve learned to accept it as part of my lot in life. In contrast, these two elected officials were being upfront and honest with their assessment of me, so I can’t complain about their behavior. The two officials, or one of them at least, may have actually meant it as a sort of compliment. I don’t really know, all I’m left with here is the word and what it means to someone who hears it.

My understanding of the word “radical” is that it means I want to attack the root of society and thus destroy it... for some reason or other. As Wikipedia puts it, “radicalism denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways.” To that I say no no no no and no. The absolute last thing I want to do is uproot and overthrow the society in which I live, for plenty of reasons but mainly because I don’t want to live with the consequences of revolutionary actions.

I consider myself a true liberal and a true conservative at one and the same time, I guess that’s why I call myself a centrist. I support the United States Constitution as a model or at the very least as a starting point for the best possible kind of government for human beings. Above all I believe that the Bill of Rights is not only the binding legal engine that powers the US Constitution, but also serves as a general guide to the best conduct of human affairs.

US Constitution With No Bill Of Rights
US Constitution With No Bill Of Rights

I also consider it self-evident that if we remove the Bill of Rights or allow it to die, the US Constitution becomes an empty and worthless mockery of government. A car without an engine, no matter how polished and well maintained, is just a useless hunk of metal taking up a parking space. Every time a part of the Bill of Rights is repealed or simply discarded by the persons in charge of my government, I feel a great deal of distress for my nation and fear for my own personal future.

Somehow, during the course of my lifetime, fervent loyalty to the foundation principles of our nation (and of our empire) has disappeared from mainstream public consciousness. These days rare persons such as myself who profess such outmoded patriotism have become branded nutjobs and outsiders. My point of view, which as basic american liberalism can accurately be called true conservatism, is now readily labeled “radicalism.” How the hell did that happen?

Back in 2004 I participated in a public protest out on McCarty Avenue in Albany across the street from the fortress headquarters of the secret police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI.) It was a quite respectable demonstration, among the participants we had some elected officials, a bunch of lawyers, the director of the NYCLU along with a fair sampling of the local peace and justice groups. We were protesting the then perpetration of unconstitutional legislation such as the so-called “Patriot” Act and other pending acts of anti-american obnoxiousness that effectively allow the federal government to arbitrarily declare martial law anytime it wants.

The Blogger On McCarty Avenue, 2004
The Blogger On McCarty Avenue, 2004

So I stood there in the mud (typical Albany in the South End, no sidewalk) off by myself facing the blank, threatening walls of the FBI holding a homemade sign, “Bill Of Rights, Now And Forever.” I thought, that’s about as uncontroversial as anyone can get. I mean what could be more patriotic, right?

Then something astonishing happened, or rather, astonishing to me. A white working class fellow in a not-so-new sedan slowed down to read my sign. He then shook his head at me vigorously No. And he drove off angrily peeling rubber, leaving me with my jaw literally hanging.

Up to that point in my life I had never imagined that an American could be opposed to the Constitution of the United States and still call him or herself an American. At the time I decided the fellow must be mentally ill or stupid, and I’m sure he watched a lot of TV and couldn’t think for himself. But since then I’ve learned to my horror that this particular stupid craziness, this opposition to the Bill of Rights itself, has actually gone mainstream and become acceptable!

Somehow my own personal support for the Bill of Rights has become a fringe notion, so politically incorrect that I’ve become a “radical.” Our entire society seems to be rejecting the basis of our rights and freedoms. All three branches of our federal government are riddled with people who are opposed to the Bill of Rights, some of them openly, proud of their anti-americanism. Has anyone else noticed besides me?

Albany Demonstration In Support Of The Bill Of Rights, McCarty Avenue 2004
Albany Demonstration In Support Of The Bill Of Rights, McCarty Avenue 2004

Consider this. When the Republican Teabaggers took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, one of the first things they did was try to repeal the 14th Amendment, which among other things guarantees the rights of citizenship to women and Black people. Seriously. They tried to take citizenship away from women. In 2011.

The Supreme Court is dominated by the activist judge Antonin Scalia, who calls the Bill of Rights “an afterthought.” And don’t get me started on President Obama, who has done more to curtail the Bill of Rights than any other president in history.

When I look at Obama, or at Scalia, or at that profoundly stupid teabagger Rand Paul or his sleazy comrade Paul Ryan, or at corporate propagandists like Bill O’Reilly and Michelle Bachman, or for that matter at Neo-Nazi white supremacists... when I look at any of these people I see the same person, they’re all a bunch of corporatists. That’s right, I have trouble distinguishing between President Obama and a white supremacist.

All of these people, each in their own way and in their own fashion, are working to shut down the Bill of Rights and replace our representative government with a corporate dictatorship. They all have differences in style and slightly different motives, but all are working for the same shutdown of freedom and prosperity and the imposition of corporatism throughout every corner of our society. As far as I’m concerned these corporatists are the real radicals who are “attacking the root of society.”

Alexis DeTocqueville
Alexis DeTocqueville

I’ve seen the rise of corporatism and the retreat of american liberalism during my lifetime but I still don’t understand why it happened. Not completely, not so I can explain it to myself in a few words. How did the enemies of the Bill of Rights take over our government? How did hating the philosophical foundation of our nation become politically correct? Why do we put up with it? What is wrong with us?

Lately I’ve been reading Alexis DeTocqueville, the aristocratic Frenchman who observed our young nation on assignment from his government. Despite his elite social status somehow he had the ability to see exactly what we were and what we would become. Indeed he was sympathetic to the young country that he was observing, and he was treated like an honored celebrity everywhere he visited.

No doubt much of what he wrote about the United States back in the 1830s seemed at the time abstract and esoteric. But to us moderns there is nothing puzzling in what he wrote, somehow without imagining automobiles, atomic bombs, or the debilitating effects of the corporate media the man saw precisely the sort of people we Americans would become by 2013.

Reading DeTocqueville is like looking into an unforgiving mirror, it is unsettling. This passage from Part 2 of his great work Democracy In America, composed after a long and thorough tour of our nation around 1831, describes the future causes of our present national self-betrayal better than I ever could. So rather than bore you with my opinion I present his prescient observations.

To begin with he repeatedly made the observation that Americans, like his fellow Frenchmen, value equality more than they value their freedom! Let that one sink in for a moment, what was true in the 1830s is perhaps more true today and explains a lot of things. With that in mind, he understood that Americans would eventually sacrifice their freedom in an attempt to maintain equality at all costs. Now let that one sink in. From Democracy In America:

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest. His children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them but he sees them not. He touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

As for myself, as one who began life in a subtly inferior social class, I consider the leveling brought on by equality as a liberating condition rather than as a restraint of ambition. In my book, elitism is perversion. After all, equality is reality, all human beings are equal with no exception. The holy books all agree on this, a quick trip to the graveyard or better yet the ash bin at the crematorium will convince anyone of the ultimate truth of equality.

Plaque In Academy Park Commemorating Alexis DeTocqueville's Visit To Albany
Plaque In Academy Park Commemorating Alexis DeTocqueville's Visit To Albany

But as the passage quoted above reveals, DeTocqueville understood that most people, having achieved equality, would eventually devolve into pettiness and self-imposed isolation rather than use their equality as a springboard for opportunity, that is, to build their community and support their neighbors and to live life the best they could. Take a look around America in 2013, see how most people live their lives hiding from each other, not even allowing their children step outside on their own. Listen to what passes for public political discourse, how all these isolated people cry with fear and demand protection from each other.

Demand protection by whom? DeTocqueville saw exactly where all this would lead, he saw our own present day near future, the one that is coming up fast and is about to overwhelm us. The very next paragraphs from Democracy In America:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power. which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.

For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides inheritances. What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

...After having successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community... The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence, it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

So the irony is that when the people pursue equality as preferable to freedom, then freedom is lost and the people are incapable of maintaining equality. As DeToqueville put it, we want to be led and we wish to remain free both at the same time. Without sorting out this contradiction we lose everything that matters.

Radical Liberals Composing A Radical Manifesto
Radical Liberals Composing A Radical Manifesto

When We the People have reduced ourselves to the status of isolated sheep who are cared for by our “betters,” that is when the worst sort of persons, the self-serving elites, quietly take the reigns of government and we become slaves in fact. Unless I missed it in my readings, DeTocqueville did not explain this end part of the process in so many words. But it is clear that his readers, particularly the ones in his native France, would not have needed to have this explained to them.

I know this because his biographers say that DeTocqueville had to be careful when he made reference to current events in his country, in the early 1830s. The spectacular rise and fall of the psychotic military adventurer Napolean Bonaparte less than 20 years earlier was still on everybody’s minds, and before Napolean the French Revolution. In the 1830s France was ruled by a monarchy under Louis-Phillipe de Orleans, who appeared to be rapidly moving France toward just the sort of condition that DeTocqueville describes above. All his prophecy, you see, looked to him very much like current events.

Remains Of The Colossal Statue Of Egyptian Pharaoh And Conquerer Ramses II, Inspiration For Ozymandias By Percy Shelley
Remains Of The Colossal Statue Of
Egyptian Pharaoh And Conquerer Ramses II,
Inspiration For Ozymandias By Percy Shelley

But while the settings are always different, the stage upon which nations play out their performances is always the same. Even the plot is usually the same. A nation is born out of inspiration and freedom, it is raised to empire by the labor and hard work of the multitude, but then the most powerful fools and scum take control and loot the empire of its wealth and self-respect, and in the end there is no one left who cares to defend the nation when the barbarians batter down the gates.

Our American Empire is no exception. We The People not only no longer bother to take care of ourselves or of each other, we do not bother to participate in our own governing and protect our rights. We let our “betters” take care of us. That is why our government is no longer ours, it performs as the representative of foreign corporations and psychotic billionaires against the people of the United States.

Thus we are watching our democratic republic be replaced by a top-down corporate pyramid that rules and regulates every part of our lives. It is a social structure modeled after the inner workings of Exxon-Mobil and the People’s Republic of China. Call it rule by a CEO and Board of Directors, or call it rule by a Party Chairman and a Politburo. It’s the same damn thing by any name.

CEO Of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, Party Chairman And President Of China Xi Jiping
CEO Of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, Party Chairman And
President Of China Xi Jiping

A corporate government and the Bill of Rights cannot coexist, these are opposite notions of how people should live. There is no self inside the corporation, the CEO at the pinnacle of the pyramid is the only person who matters. Personal rights and personal responsibility cannot be reconciled with unthinking obedience to your immediate superior on the pyramid, it’s either freedom or subservience. You can’t have both.

That is why the Bill of Rights is dying, one piece at a time. The worst sort of people and their paid minions are taking it away from the rest of us, and We the Sheep People are barely raising a peep and some of us are even stupidly asking for it to die. When the last remaining vestiges of popular sovereignty are eliminated, then the looting by the elites will become so thorough that we will become a nation of slaves who possess nothing of value.

So please excuse me for objecting to this prevailing trend. If that makes me a radical, then without changing my opinion I guess that’s what I’ve become. I’m used to being out of sync with everybody else and holding opinions that everybody else thinks are crazy. Believe me, people say worse things about me.

King Radical From Dr. McNinja Pronounces Judgement
King Radical From Dr. McNinja Pronounces Judgement

Of course, it is very possible that these two elected officials meant something entirely different by labeling me a “radical.” Perhaps they were merely trying to inform the third party that here is a fellow who does not willingly suck up to authority and thus is near impossible to control. It is certainly true that I do not like to be led, and resist subservience at every reasonable opportunity.

That of course means I am a perpetual pain in the butt to elected officials. Perhaps that’s all the message that these two were conveying, watch out for the nutjob. It’s important to remember that from the point of view of elected officials, who depend upon public good will and votes to retain their jobs, any nutjob like myself who can upset an office holder’s reelection with his antics is a radical attacking the very foundations of society itself.

If that’s what they meant by the word “radical” then maybe I should embrace it proudly. But no, that would be inaccurate and deceptive, I do not wish to overthrow anything except certain political careers. If anything I wish to restore some things that we are losing, but most of all I want to live comfortably and not worry about a deteriorating future. That’s all.

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Posted by:Jo
Posted on:04/21/2013
The founders of this country meet the wiki definition of radicals Anyone in support of their ideals, such as the Bill of Rights- which today is still a profoundly radical document asserting the rights of individuals over the nationstate, (but alas, not over the corporate state) -could proudly consider themselves a radical.

Sadly, the disapproving observer of your Bill of Rights sign, is not among a tiny minority. There have been several public polls over the last 20 years showing a large percentage of American adults cannot identify the Bill of Rights and other polls that show many are not in favor of the 4th amendment.

Posted by:Barbara
Posted on:04/22/2013
It's surprising the number of people who would pick and choose what freedoms people should be allowed to keep based on their personal biases. As in Bloomberg (a mere mayor) should be able to tell a person what size of cup he can have soda in because they don't like fat people. They think soda or obesity is the issue rather than who told Michael Bloomberg that he can tell you what to eat?
The actor Richard Dreyfuss was waging a campaign to bring civics education back to classrooms but I haven't heard anything about that in a while. That could be part of the problem, maybe younger Americans truly don't understand these issues, but so many people my age (baby boom) are ignorant in this way and I know that they heard this stuff in school.
The yammering back and forth in the corporate media about liberals versus conservatives is a big distraction that keeps people from noticing that there is no real difference any more.
I'm running on, but back to your main point, I agree with you 100% and as to why people do what they do, they're being trained that way.

Posted by:Roger Green
Posted on:04/23/2013
Of course, it's all a matter of perspective. I thought the SCOTUS victories of the 1960s (for which many wanted Earl Warren impeached) were just a logical extension of the Constitution, while the notion that corporations are people I find disturbingly radical in the extreme.

Posted by:GAH
Posted on:05/02/2013
Part of the problem is that people tend, selfishly, to think of freedom as this unlimited, infinite thing -- and if only government would just get out of the way, we'd all be FREE!

This is where I'm informed by my math background. In linear algebra, we learn about systems of linear equations. In such a system, you have several equations, and several unknowns. The "degrees of freedom" is the difference between how much you know (the # of equations) and how much you don't know (the # of variables). A system may be re-worded or cast into an equivalent form -- but no matter what, the degrees of freedom remains constant. The point is, that all you can ever do with freedom is move it around. Like matter. It's neither created nor destroyed.

Want unfettered access to guns? Okay. But be prepared to give up some of your freedom to go to a movie theater without fear of being shot. Or your ability to go into work on a weekend.

Want to feel free to drive from point A to point B in relative safety? Be prepared to pay your auto insurance, get your safety and emissions inspections, and pay some tolls so that the roads are kept in drivable condition.

Want the freedom to drink water from your tap? Then you better pay to make sure that water is treated properly.
Freedom of speech and freedom from being slandered are clearly in opposition.

Remember all those shirts some people were wearing after 9/11--"Freedom isn't free?" Well, they were right. I just don't think they all knew how right they were.

Posted by:Luke
Posted on:08/12/2015
Is that Alexis de Tocqueville plaque still in Academy Park? I've looked around for it, but can't find it. I wouldn't be surprised if it's been covered, as the photo shows but worse. Disgraceful really.

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