All These Moments

All These Moments

Random ramblings in writing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ashcroft at UT

Any discussion of sound bites includes the Mark Twain quote: "A minimum of sound to a maximum of sense." This expresses how a proper sound bite should not just be pithy, but properly capture the point the speaker is making. This, of course, is contrary to how sound bites are utilized in mainstream American politics. Instead, the perfect sound bite is one that can be used to create a caricature of the speaker's intention in order to attack his or her general point. I attended John Ashcroft's speech at the University of Texas last week, and I think the media coverage of this event typifies this sort of behavior.

"I don't have a mark on my conscience."
One quote that is repeatedly tossed around is Ashcroft declaring, "I don't have a mark on my conscience." "Well, no conscience no marks," Keith Olbermann snidely assesses. It is certainly more convenient to simply play this quote. Conservatives can pat themselves on the back, feeling reaffirmed that nothing whatsoever has been done wrong. Liberals can have a laugh to themselves at Ashcroft's expense and rant to each other about how evil the Patriot Act is. Who does this help? Nobody, it seems to me. This kind of rhetoric more closely resembles sharks feeding on chum than constructive political discourse. These kinds of sound bites do nothing to encourage discussion on important issues and serve only to keep everyone complacent in their political beliefs. I think we owe it to ourselves, and the 79th Attorney General, to pick some sound bites that reflect Twain's "maximum of sense" rather than the "maximum of convenience" that most news sources prefer.

"[Freedom] is worthless absent consequence."
It seems to me that only the most insane of anarchists would disagree with this quote, but before expounding on such an encompassing statement I should first pin down specifically what Ashcroft meant. Ashcroft is essentially repeating the timeless expression that "we are a nation of laws." Even when we disagree with laws, we are bound to respect and follow them because of our belief in democracy. This is a simple thing to say that almost everyone can agree on, but like all such statements the simplicity in which it can be expressed does not reflect its simplicity in practice.

This same principle was leveled against Ashcroft by his critics, who believe that he broke the law and should be in jail. (Never far behind are criticisms of former President George W. Bush.) Ashcroft was asked numerous times during Q&A why he was not in jail. One woman even tried to turn Ashcroft's rhetoric back at him, asking why he was not in jail if he sincerely believes what he says. "We did not break the law," Ashcroft said simply, but of course his critics disagree. This begs the question, why don't we hear critics using this sound bite? If Ashcroft man is so demonstratively guilty than this sound bite is devastating. The man is a criminal, he used his influence to avoid justice, and-to top it all off-he is a complete hypocrite. He champions the very political philosophy that he blatantly disregarded. The answer is obvious; Ashcroft is not the evil criminal that his critics make him out to be.

Critics avoid this sound bite in order to avoid a real discourse about his actions because in that scenario they have no guarantee of being vindicated. Not all blame goes to his critics, plenty of Ashcroft supporters are guilty of avoiding this same discussion because they, too, have no guarantee that they will be vindicated. What results is two antagonistic groups avoiding one of Ashcroft's more salient sound bites in favor of a dull one which each group can either praise or mock as they see fit. Instead, critics and supporters alike should focus on the kind of sound bites which Mark Twain would approve of, because they lead to an informative disccussion of Ashcroft's decisions as Attorney General, the most controversial of which is the Patriot Act.

"The Patriot Act was a conglomeration of previous law enforcement strategies."
This was actually news to me. The Patriot Act is probably the only Act you can expect the average American to be familiar with. The Patriot Act is that it is entirely the creation of John Ashcroft and the Bush Administration. "Author of the Patriot Act," and "Chief Architect of the Patriot Act," are the most popular ways of referring to Ashcroft. This fact reveals Ashcroft's role to be that of a person collecting previous legislation, rather than someone sitting down and penning new laws that infringe on the civil liberties of American citizens. This means
everything in the Patriot Act had legal precedent.

One who accepts this fact is still entitled to oppose the Patriotic Act, but the struggle becomes a process of voting (even on years without a presidential election, snore) and writing to Senators and Congressman (too long, did not write).
Opponents ignore this sound bite, and the truth it reflects, because it undermines the energy and antagonism they like to feel towards Ashcroft. After accepting this truth, it is impossible to argue that Ashcroft should be sent to jail, one can only hope to change the law to prevent another Attorney General from repeating what he has done. Acceptance means one is reduced to opposing the Patriot Act rather than resisting it. Acceptance means the romance is gone. Acceptance also means that opponents of the Patriot Act would be forced to acknowledge its legal precedents and its practice. This is inconvenient because it makes the act much less ominous.

Ashcroft's explanation of roving wiretaps is a perfect example. This practiced back in 1988 in order to track drug dealers. Warrantless, rather than roving, has become a popular word to describe such wiretaps. This practice started in 1988 in order to keep up with drug dealers. Why, in 1988, did "warrantless" wiretaps become necessary to track drug dealers? Because the way warrants were issued was becoming cumbersome. Before 1988, investigators had to get a warrant in order to monitor a single telephone. This was not a problem initially, but the development of mobile phones changed that. Drug dealers were no longer dependent on landline phones, and soon discovered they could evade observation by getting a new phone every week. It was completely unfeasible for investigators to get a new warrant every week in order to track a single person, so a "roving warrant" was developed in order to keep up with such drug dealers. Rather than issuing a warrant for a single phone, a judge would issue a "roving warrant" that allowed investigators to tap any of the named drug dealer's phones. The roving warrant is "warrantless" in the sense that no subsequent warrants are issued for new phones, but it is disingenuous to describe it that way since there is an original, more flexible warrant allowing investigators to track new phones. Rather than an illegal display of power, roving wiretaps were created as a sensible response to a critical problem.

As I said before, one can still disagree with the Patriot Act. Some may even disagree with my assertion that roving wiretaps are a sensible solution. The strategies in the Patriot Act vary; there will certainly be practices in the Patriot Act with more questionable legal precedents than the roving wiretap just as there will be other practices with even less contestable precedents. What is not disputable is that everything in the Patriot Act has legal precedent. Regrettably, this critical fact is widely overlooked.

"I would hope that if you really care about freedom you would allow people to talk."
Ashcroft interrupted the protesters chanting in the back of the auditorium with this line. Although he was successful in immediately silencing them, it proved impossible to keep them quiet for the duration of his speech. A few minutes later, one of the protesters yelled to the crowd, "
I hope you realize that by listening to this guy you're making yourselves look stupid." I rank her comment as the most foolish one expressed that night. The protesters may have chanted "Hiroshima" as if Ashcroft were somehow responsible. The protesters may have boo'd when Ashcroft gave an explanation of where Congressional and Executive powers have overlapped historically. The protesters may have repetitively asked Ashcroft why he wasn't in jail, but at least these protesters were not openly advocating that that we ignore everything the man had to say. The sentiment she expressed is exactly the same as the sheep in George Orwell's Animal Farm. She places no importance on analyzing what her opponent has to say, but simply knows she hates Ashcroft and has learned the proper slogans and chants to yell at him.

I say the other protesters did not "openly" advocate what she said because I believe their shared behavior is because they share her sentiment. It is important to mention that the protesters were not the only liberals in attendance. There were other liberals sitting near me who were generally respectful. "Why are they still bitching about this guy, do they realize we won?" one of them said, expressing disdain for the protesters. If only more people had that attitude.


Blogger Noel Santiago said...

Intelligently said.

6:30 AM  

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My name is Jared and I'm an English major at UT. Politically I'm a mix of libertarian and neocon with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Otherwise I'm just a typical nerd.

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