Monday, November 03, 2008

Naomi Wolf: "Give Me Liberty": The Philosophy, then the Handbook

Author: Naomi Wolf.
Other contributors: Cutis Ellis, Lisa Witter, Elizabeth Curtis, Will Coghlan, Marjorie Cohn, Heidi Boghosian, Trevor “Oyate”, Raymond D. Powell, Wende Jager-Hyman, Mary Jacksteit, Stephanie Burger, Mark Crispin Miller, Annette Warden Dickerson, Lauren Melodia, Diane Keefe, Curtis Ellis, Steven C. Bennett
Title: "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries".
Publication: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Description: ISBN 1-4165-9056-0. 368 pages, paper, in 3 parts, the last comprising 8 sections.

There is a 27-minute video of Naomi discussing her book here. Wolf also has a detailed discussion on The Huffington Post, called “The Battle Plan”, Sept. 16, 2008, link here.

This book strikes me as a statement about the “layering” of liberty, and of the techniques we use to establish and secure it. I must confess, I haven’t ret her previous books like “The End of America” and “The Beauty Myth” but I can certainly see where she is coming from. Two of the chapters are called “Fake Patriotism” and “Fake Democracy”.

The book architecture consists of three “floors” or “stories”. Part I is titled “What Is America: Not a Country: A State of Mind”. (Compare that to John McCain’s “Country First”.) Part II is called “Core Values”, which develops seven Principles, of which the first is maybe the most important: “We are required to speak freely.” Part III is called “America: The User’s Guide” and has a large number of individual contributions on how to participate in various forms of activism.

A core historical event that generates this whole book is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, made in Richmond (not Williamsburg) at St. John’s Church in 1775. She starts the last chapter in Part II (before the Handbook) with a discussion of this speech, in a short chapter called “A New American Revolution.”

It’s useful to think back to what British and, by and large, European society had been like. There was the notion of “the divine right of Kings” and a landed aristocracy. There was a belief that people fit into a hierarchy, and somehow the people above were “better” but that, as a kind of moral rationalization, they had the responsibility to take care of those under them and give their lives meaning. Arguments had been invented to track this belief system back to Biblical scriptures. Today, we see the same kind of thinking in the patriarchal family, creating a lot of social controversy.

The American Revolution (as would then the French Revolution, somewhat differently) challenged the idea that moral governance was a top-down process. People would have the right to govern themselves, set their own taxes. They would make, enforce and interpret their own laws. We would have governing principles called republicanism and, related to it in time, federalism. But self-government was, in its time, a radical boost to a sense of self-empowerment.

At the same time, the American revolution did not try to settle focused social controversies, particularly those dealing with individual rights, the way they understand them today. It could not settle the issue of race, or the nuances of free speech law as we see it today, or the subtle problems of family relationships that overflow into today’s debate over gay rights. But at least the Revolution provided a (constitutional) framework by which these deeper problems would eventually be addressed. The Revolution provided us with a democratic framework that would facilitate what she calls "self-correction."

But Naomi Watt’s concern is that the whole experience of democracy is under threat, particularly given the past eight years under the Bush administration, following 9/11. That’s nothing new, because we’ve always seen evidence of corruption in our democratic institutions. We had them during the 50s (McCarthyism), and the 60s, with the scandals underneath the Vietnam war and eventually Watergate. We’ve always had them.

It seems that the author (and her contributors) throw the kitchen sink at the problems, discussing almost every mechanism in democracy, especially (toward the end) the threats to the electoral process. Early in the book, in fact, Wolf gives an interesting discussion (in the context of what happens when an “amateur” runs for public office) of how representative democracy has gotten corrupted by the way special interests and “political consultants” (the K Street crowd) make money off the system. Getting elected is supposed to be the way to get things done, but you need a “political resume” first. (Look at Barack Obama’s.) Along the way, she describes how middlemen are supposed to get "leads" in almost any consultancy or agency: you tap on absolutely everyone you know, even your used car salesman. Political consulting is made to look schmoozy and parasitic.

On the free speech issue, Wolf has a real cafeteria plan. She is critical of the old media and its attitude that it “owns” the news and the circulation of opinion, and she correctly notes that the old media feels rightly threatened by the “democratization” offered by the Internet. So, yes, she advocates personal blogs and websites ("Becoming the Media Yourself"), but, cautions, don’t expect too much of them. They work in conjunction with other efforts requiring more coordination with other people. The book gives some good advice on how to get op-eds published in newspapers (apparently many newspaper would actually like to expand beyond their list of syndicated columnists), and it lays out the expected procedures for contacting investigative reporters and getting onto television (interacting with “bookers”, for example) with the established corporate media outlets. There is a lot of valuable material here.

She puts individual speech in perspective with assembly and petition. There is a lot of material in the book on how the ability to demonstrate has been chipped away by the requirement for permits and following various rules. She takes the position that the capability to demonstrate in large numbers (and risk arrest and even violence, as well as organize boycotts) has been very critical to the success of most movements in our history (including the civil rights movement in the 1960s most of all). Now, it actually takes money to be able to demonstrate, which is certainly antithetical to democracy. (Imagine what could happen if the same constraints could be applied to individual Internet speech. It's been tried: look at the CDA and COPA.) Later in the book one of the contributors talks about demonstrating and getting arrested and how to handle the police. Even today, with all the power of the Internet, collective action is as important as individual action.

She also advocates an interesting proposal: "deliberative debate". Rather than talking at each other or past each others, speakers, on controversial issues, need to encounter one another in person and learn to walk in each other's shoes. But that begs a concept I have mentioned before, "The privilege of being listened to", where before someone speaks to a controversy, they ought to experience the same level of personal responsibility for others as those whom they criticize.

She also gets into areas like "conflict of interest" problems with speech. She cites one case of a VA nurse who was threatened with sedition charges for criticizing the American military. She fought it successfully, but she was told not to identify herself publicly as associated with the government.

Public employees do have legal rights in this area, and that is a subject on its own. But I had the experience in the 1990s of becoming public in opposing the military gay ban (“don’t ask don’t tell”) while I was working for a company that sold life insurance to military officers. I felt that this was an ethical conflict, and, after a corporate merger, relocated and transferred to a different section of the new company to avoid the conflict. What is the ethics of this sort of situation? We see this in the obscure debate about corporate blogging policies, which is spilling over into the even (legally and ethically) murkier area of “online reputation.”

The book makes its case for direct democracy (with a discussion of Switzerland) and the use of initiative and referendum. She doesn’t mention “ballot-ician” Bill Sizemore, who has become controversial by being hired (mostly by conservative and sometimes by libertarian interests) to introduce ballot initiatives in Oregon. But those of us who have been active in the gay rights area know how dangerous referendum can be. (Look at the battle over Proposition 8 in California, the “gay marriage” amendment, and this has happened in a number of other states, including Virginia in 2006. But also, remember the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978 which, had it carried, would have banned gay teachers; even governor Reagan opposed it.)

If one connects all the dots, one can imagine (right now, as a “thought experiment”, dangerous perhaps) a vigilante-type initiative in some state to force bloggers to carry insurance, because of the recent media stories about damaged “reputations” and a few horrific tragedies around the country because of cyberabuse. Imagine the consternation such a proposal would cause if on a referendum (let alone in a legislature or Congress). Just as with the automobile a century or so ago, new technology typically empowers the individual and ultimately can challenge old patterns of authority. There will always be those who seek to regulate the new freedoms, sometimes out of existence. Referendums can actually turn on democracy and freedom, and sometimes so can direct democracy. You need the checks and balances.

There is a technical section on amending the Constitution (expanded on how it is covered in high school government classes) near the end. A related book is by John Vile, "Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process", (Praeger, 1993).

1 comment:

Evan Ravitz said...

Voters on ballot initiatives need what legislators get: public hearings, expert testimony, amendments, reports, etc. The best project for such deliberative process is the National Initiative for Democracy, led by former Sen. Mike Gravel: http://Vote.org. Also http://healthydemocracyoregon.org/ and http://cirwa.org

In Switzerland, petitions are left at government offices and stores for people to read and sign at leisure, so there are less aggressive petitioners more informed signers, and less $ required. The Swiss vote on initiatives 4-6 times a year so there's never too many on one ballot. Because they have real power, the Swiss read more newspapers/capita than anyone else.

Legislators have never tried to improve the ballot initiative process, but often try to make it even harder. They'd rather have absolute power!

In Switzerland, representatives are humbler, after centuries of local and cantonal (state) ballot initiatives, and national initiatives since 1891. They call their system "co-determination." This works well for couples, too!