No Comment — January 1, 2008, 11:46 am

A Vow for the New Year

A New Year, new resolutions. Most of us will be thinking of shedding pounds and advancing our positions in the workplace. But in this process, Americans should think of their country. What has it become? It is easy to place blame on the men of poor moral character who have installed themselves as our leadership, to heap criticism on them and to wish them gone. At this point, there are few attitudes in America more widely shared than that. But all Americans must share in the blame for the tragedy which has unfolded over the last seven years. We must share because we failed to raise our voice against it. Too many faded into the crowd and allowed the fires of hatred and ignorance to consume them, the larger the crowd, the smaller the self, the smaller the responsibility of the individual—so goes the primal, but false impulse which eats at the heart of so many democracies.

In a truly extraordinary editorial, the New York Times measures what the country has lost and presents the challenge that it faces in the election year 2008:

There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.

It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001. The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.

Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer. In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.

We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions — and both American and international law — to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review. Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.

The developments of the last three years have exposed the leaders of the current Administration. They want us to understand them as figures from a Chuck Norris film–Rambos who know instinctively what must be done for the security and good of the greater whole, and who won’t be restrained by foolish legalities. History knows many such characters, and all of them have ended badly, some as catastrophes. The reality is starkly different from the Hollywood illusion. Team Bush is not composed of Rambos, but of rambling incompetents. Everything they touch turns sour. They are driven not by concern about our security (which they undermine with every breath) but by their own monomaniacal accumulation of power.

And their nobility of character can be encased in a few scenes. They do not stand up and take responsibility for their decisions. Instead they cower behind deception and falsehood. They offer up 19-year-old soldiers, whom they have sent into battle without guidance or support, as sacrifices to be consumed by the anger of the public and the world. They deride these young soldiers as “rotten apples,” and send off-the-record spokesmen out to imply that we’re recruiting too many criminals into the Army today. We watched this happen in the wake of Abu Ghraib, but no one could muster the fortitude to say what was obviously passing before our eyes. Their lies reverberated in stereo and on HDTV.

And now, in these very weeks, we see it again with the scandal surrounding the destruction of the torture tapes, done with the full complicity of the White House at the highest levels. Now they busily prepare again to scapegoat some young case officers at the CIA, and perhaps some middle management figures. For what? For crimes that they designed, worked out and ordered to be performed. These men have long forfeited any claim to moral leadership. They are staining our nation and its high offices. But we cannot despair over the task of purging these stains.

I too feel a vision of America slipping away. It’s the Founder’s vision of America, of a republic erected as a bulwark against tyranny with individual freedom as its aspiration, and the threat of accumulation of power in the hands of a few men acting in concert—or of a sole tyrant—as its nemesis. The protections that the Founders put in place to defend us against the one true nemesis—the internal one–are being disassembled one by one. First habeas corpus is abolished, and then the protection against warrantless intrusion sputters and fades. To cover their vandalism they maintain a drumbeat of fear, encouraging every cowardly and servile impulse. The media who should be our watchdogs have gone silent. In their place come corporate interests playing a siren’s song, luring us all to complacency, to sleep.

So let’s put one resolution at the top of our list: Not another step! We will not abide one more step in the destruction of our civil liberties. Nor will we tolerate further contempt for what the Founders called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” by destroying international law in the name of security. We will defy the forces of tyranny that are vandalizing our Constitution and traditions. We will guard the Founders’ vision. In 2008, the time is here to give expression to values we want to retain, or see them vanish forever. It starts with remembering what we have lost. It continues with thought, word, action and vote.

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Editor's Note

Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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