Scary Times in the USA

Readin' the newspapers anymore is eerily reminiscent of all those bad novels warning of the advent of fascism in America. "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis was a bad book, and the genre shades off into right-wing paranoia about black helicopters, including the memorably awful "Turner Diaries." I don't use the f-word myself -- in fact, for years, I've made fun of liberals who hear the approach of jackbooted fascism around every corner. But to quote a real authority on the subject, "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power." -- Benito Mussolini.

The most hair-raising news du jour is about Total Information Awareness, a giant government computer system being set up to spy on Americans and run by none other than John Poindexter of Iran-Contra fame.

TIA will provide intelligence agencies and law enforcement with instant access to information from e-mail, telephone records, credit cards, banking transactions and travel records, all without a search warrant. The just-passed Homeland Security Bill undermines the Privacy Act of 1974, which was intended to limit what government agencies can do with personal information.

And can we trust the government to keep all this information solely for the task of tracking terrorists? Funny you should ask. The Wall Street Journal reports this week that shortly after Sept. 11, the FBI circulated the names of hundreds of people it wanted to question to scores of corporations around the country.

"A year later, the list has taken on a life of its own, with multiplying -- and error-filled -- versions being passed around like bootleg music. Some companies fed a version of the list into their databases and now use it to screen job applicants and customers." The list included people who were not suspects at all, just people the FBI wanted to talk to because they might have had some information. But, the Journal reports, a Venezuelan bank's security officer sent the list, headed "suspected terrorists sent by the FBI," to a website.

The great writer on the subject of totalitarianism was George Orwell, and "1984" is always worth rereading. Damned if GeeDubya Bush didn't pop up the other day to announce that we must fight a war "for the sake of peace." That's not vaguely Orwellian, it's a direct steal.

During another time of rampaging fear, when civil liberties were considered a frivolous luxury, the late, unlamented McCarthy Era, the American Civil Liberties Union chickened out on some big issues and so an Emergency Civil Liberties Union had to be created to fight McCarthyism. This ACLU, under Anthony Romero, is fighting hard, but I think we need a new coalition organization -- civil libertarians, libertarians and principled conservatives ... real patriots who believe in the Constitution. The blowhard right-wingers sometimes put down Barry Goldwater these days as "the liberals' favorite conservative," and so he was. But in your heart, you know Goldwater would have had a cow over all this.

Rep. Dick Armey has already announced he will do consulting work with the ACLU on privacy issues (good on him). Rep. Ron Paul and columnist Bill Safire are stout on these matters, as are other unlikely suspects such as Bob Barr of Georgia.

For those who relish irony, there's a comical extent to which liberals are the new conservatives, exactly where the old principled Republicans used to be -- reluctant to get involved in foreign wars, harping on fiscal responsibility and worried about constitutional freedoms.

Personally, I still believe internationalism makes more sense than isolationism because our major problems in the future -- global warming, overpopulation and water shortage -- are going to have to be dealt with on a global basis. I think it is inarguable that this is the most anti-environmental administration since before Teddy Roosevelt. The corporatists in this administration, particularly those from the oil bidness, apparently have some grand imperialist schemes to keep us in cheap oil indefinitely.

As a matter of both foreign and environmental policy, it makes a lot more sense to lay rail, promote renewable energy and get serious about conserving oil. We subsidize the hell out of the oil bidness with innumerable tax breaks, loopholes and support programs. For heaven's sake, why not support renewable energy, instead? Why should we ask our military to die for cheap oil when the rest of us aren't even being asked to get better mileage?

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