Recovering values

Sam Smith

Last week I attended, as I have for the past quarter century, a board meeting of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which among other things, helps support the work of several groups dedicated to telling the truth about what is happening in government and other American institutions. One is the Government Accountability Project, which, among scores of other cases, is currently helping to represent Edward Snowden, but is also aiding a whistleblower at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who told CNN that 8-10% of UNC-CH revenue-sport student-athletes from 2004-12 could not read at a third-grade level.

Another is the Project on Government Oversight which gained fame uncovering Pentagon waste such as $7000 coffee makers and a $436 hammer and is still at it, recently uncovering that over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other Justice employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work, but whose malpractice has not been revealed.

Then there’s the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which, among many other things, helped to get rid of the TSA scanners that digitally stripped searched passengers.

These are among the great unsung heroes of Washington and I leave these meetings both inspired, but also somewhat depressed, because over the past quarter century the willingness and/or ability of America – from top down – to react wisely and honorably to such revelations has noticeably declined.

The recent news about NSA’s unconstitutional mass spying on American’s phone use is but one example and demonstrates an underlying evil of such violations of our rights: people become used to what they experience.

For example, four years before 9/11, I wrote in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

“We, too, think we are free. But let’s review the bidding. Here are some restrictions on American freedoms that are less than a generation old, each instituted, we were told, to protect us from a danger, a crisis or a threat to national security:

· Roadblocks as part of random searches for drivers who have been drinking or using drugs

· The extensive use of the military in civilian law enforcement, particularly in the war on drugs

· Black school children in Prince George’s County MD are being taught by the police how to behave when stopped or arrested. It is assumed by both school officials and the cops that it will happen

· The use of handcuffs on persons accused of minor offenses and moving violations

· Jump-out squads that leap from police vehicles and search nearby citizens

· Much greater use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance

· Punishment before trial such as pre-trial detention and civil forfeiture of property

· Punishment of those not directly involved in offenses, such as parents being held responsible for the actions of their children, employers being required to enforce immigration laws, and bartenders being made to enforce drinking laws

· Warrantless searches of persons and property before entering buildings, boarding planes, or using various public facilities

· Closing of public buildings or parts of buildings to the public on security grounds

· Increased restrictions on student speech, behavior, and clothing

· Increased mandatory use of IDs

· Increasing restrictions on attorney-client privacy

· Greatly increased government access to personal financial records

· Loss of a once widely presumed guarantee of confidentiality in dealings with businesses, doctors, accountants, and banks

· The greatest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world

· Mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, particularly marijuana possession

· Increased surveillance of employees in the workplace

· Laws in 11 states that make it a crime to suggest that a particular food is unsafe without a “sound scientific basis” for the claim

· Random traffic stops of blacks are so frequent that the drivers are sometimes said to have been stopped for DWB — driving while black

· Increased use of charges involving offenses allegedly committed after a person has been halted by a police officer, such as failure to obey a lawful order

· Widespread youth curfews

· Expanded definition of pornography and laws against it

· Greatly increased use of private police forces by corporations

· Persons being forced to take part in line-ups because of some similarity to actual suspect

· Loss of control over how personal information is used by business companies

· Eviction of tenants from homes where police believe drugs are being sold

· Public housing projects being sealed to conduct home-to-home searches

· Use of stereotypical profiles (including racial characteristics) to justify police searches

· Seizure of lawyers’ fees in drug cases

· Warrantless searches and questioning of bus, train, and airline passengers

· Random searches of school lockers

· Random searches of cars in school parking lots

· Increased number of activities requiring extensive personal investigation and disclosure

· Lack of privacy in transactions such as video rental or computer use

· Video surveillance of sidewalks, parks and other public spaces

· Involuntary drug testing increasingly used as a prerequisite for routine activities such as earning a livelihood or playing on a sports team

· Steady erosion by the courts of protection against search and seizure

As you read this list and find yourself occasionally saying something like, ‘So, what’s strange about that?, you are illustrating the change in your own life that has taken place within a couple of decades. The disturbing, the unreasonable, and the unconstitutional have increasingly become the normal.

This is the tremendous problem against which organizations like GAP, POGO and EPIC struggle. When you blow the whistle, someone has to hear it and be moved into action.

Government and corporations have obviously been the worst offenders in redefining the normal, but there are others that attract less attention, such as the media, churches, and educational institutions.

How do we retain our democracy if our children’s schooling is reduced to learning to pass endless tests in time that once was devoted to things like American history. democracy and civics? How effective can watchdogs be if the media becomes just a bunch of power-lapping puppies? And how are the corrupt greedster values of politics and corporations challenged if the former heartland of values such as churches. community leaders and universities are so silent or afraid?

The dominant values of America today are far more likely to come from a business school curriculum than from teachings of honor and integrity. Without the latter values, the work of whistleblowers and watchdogs is greatly diminished in effectiveness. And if the media will not report such values’ existence, then the wrong becomes the norm.

There are still a huge number of good people in America but they need to find new ways to make themselves heard. For example, communities can come together – businesses, activists, churches etc. –and create a code of conduct for politicians. It need only cover those issues that most decent citizens agree about. Those politicians who pledge to follow these principles – regardless of their policy differences – could indicate this support. And Pope Francis has shown how churches can reintroduce the importance of integrity.

In other words, citizens must find ways to organize not just around issues but around decent values just as the American right has organized around false, cruel and indecent ones. Not just around the minimum wage but around maximum honor. Perhaps then, even the mass media might hear.

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