The Rumbling At Our Feet
December 15, 2004
By Pamela Troy
keep having the same slightly mad conversation with moderates. By
"moderate" I mean the people, Democrat and Republican, liberal and
conservative, who use words like "troubling" or "disturbing" to
describe what's happening in this country, but laugh off any suggestion
that stronger language might be appropriate.
"Oh, come on, don't be so melodramatic," I'm told, when the subject
of the recent irregularities in our last election comes up. "If
it gets to the point where we've truly lost faith in our system
of elections, why, we'll march en masse on Congress, put
the fear of God in 'em and demand that they do something about it!"
"And why would marching on Congress make them do this?" I ask.
"Because they're politicians," I'm informed with amused
and exaggerated patience. "They want to be re-elected. They
know if they don't listen to us, we're going to go to the voting
booths and cast our ballots..."
It's like talking to a teenager who understands mortality on an
intellectual level but is unable to associate it with drinking too
much, driving too fast, or accepting rides from strangers.
Without a voting system that we can trust to reflect our will,
we have no weapons but naked defiance. As Americans I'm afraid we
are unaware of the terrible price such defiance can exact in a country
where the government ascribes to itself the power to incarcerate
citizens indefinitely, secretly, and without access to a lawyer,
and where the word "torture" is being legally redefined into meaninglessness.
Perhaps much of this complacency lies in the fact that most of
us are currently too low or too high on society's food chain to
believe that there can be serious consequences for speaking out.
We aren't insiders like Joe Wilson, high profile enough to be a
genuine threat, or marginal individuals like Jose Padilla, too foreign
and scary-looking to be accepted as "real Americans" by the majority.
But we have still gone further down the road to one party rule
than I would have credited several years ago, in spite of almost
every mainstream assurance we have been given for the past twenty
years about the supposedly imminent demise of the religious right,
the commitment of Democratic leadership to actually confronting
the extremists who have taken over the Republican Party, and the
status of the press as an independent watchdog over powerful interests.
We seem cheerfully oblivious to the fact that every safeguard to
freedom, every check and balance that we take for granted has been
While the assurances from the mainstream have been hollow, the
rumblings of the right-wing Internet have proven to be a horribly
reliable barometer of the direction we've been headed for the past
twenty years. I've been online since the mid-eighties, was frequenting
discussion boards when using the term "Internet" in a sentence generally
required a detailed explanation. Back then, I used to encounter
ridiculous arguments on the web about how the founders didn't really
intend there to be separation of church and state, how liberals
are all Communists and Joe McCarthy was right and those who opposed
the Vietnam war were traitors.
The people who posted this kind of dreck considered the actual
truth of a statement to be beside the point. Back then, such an
approach to political discussion was regarded and treated as marginal,
a joke to most liberals and an embarrassment to most conservatives.
Today I see those same arguments being seriously offered by pundits
with their own national TV shows. Bill O'Reilly has warned us to
shut up if we know what's good for us. Ann Coulter has labeled the
Democratic Party as treasonous. That same level of dishonesty has
become the norm in mainstream political discourse, in which high-ranking
members of the administration rewrite history without a blush mere
weeks after the fact.
And in the meantime the subterranean noises online have gotten
even more extreme and more violent. Torture? It's not treated with
shame or even lame denials and excuses, but embraced, positively
lauded as a virtue, while the rhetoric towards those of us designated
as "liberals" is increasingly crossing the border into violence.
To oppose Bush's "War on Terror" is to be labeled as one of the
enemy - and the enemy can be abused at will. Rational debate has
become all but impossible as language is twisted to defend what
was not so long ago regarded as indefensible by everyone but the
most wild-eyed neo-fascist.
Offline, those of us who pride ourselves on our reason and moderation
cluck our tongues ruefully over the recent voting "irregularities"
in Ohio. We treat that, and the administration's claim that it has
the right to label anyone in the world an "enemy combatant" and
imprison them - and the administration's claim that torture isn't
torture - and the administration's conviction that they have been
appointed by God - as if they were separate issues.
Loudmouths like Michael Moore and Al Franken and Greg Palast make
us wince. Goodness, couldn't they be a little less shrill? I mean,
sure they have a point, but really they're just reducing their own
credibility with all that arm-waving, all that unseemly anger! Disenfranchisement
is something that happens to somebody else. Like torture, kidnapping,
religious and political repression, it's something to disapprove
of from what we imagine to be a safe distance.
I don't anticipate any serious personal consequences for posting
this piece. A family member's career will not be ruined. I'm not
going to be picked up at an airport and whisked into legal limbo.
Even in the face of what's unfolding before me, I find it hard to
grasp that I, an American, could at some point be harshly punished
for speaking my mind. In that sense I'm like the nineteen-year-old
who can remember Grandma's funeral but still can't believe that
mortality also applies to me. After all, it never has before.
But as any mature adult knows, things change. At nineteen, I didn't
understand how fragile is the human body, how easily it can die.
Today, enough of my friends have been lost to avoidable car accidents,
drug overdoses, and even just ordinary carelessness about their
health for me to understand that little should be taken for granted.
Ten years hence, God only knows what Americans citizens may not
just believe, but know as an ugly and undeniable fact about the
health of our status as a free society.