The FISA Bill: Amnesty For The Rich & Powerful

When immigration advocates call for legalization and a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, opponents brandish the word “amnesty,” as if it was comprised of only four letters. Congress ignores the issue indefinitely rather than face it head on. Yet when it came to passing into the law the recent changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), that same body overwhelmingly set three insidious precedents: 1) amnesty is perfectly fine for the rich and powerful; 2) our respect for the law can be mitigated by our ability to change the law and apply it retroactively; 3) protecting our freedom is so important that it justifies betraying those very freedoms in the first place. All in all, the bill’s passage into law is an act of hypocrisy and recklessness.

“Amnesty” is defined as “a general pardon, especially for those who have committed political crimes” or “a period during which crimes can be admitted or illegal weapons handed in without prosecution.” That’s what critics call any measure to legalize undocumented immigrants. Through spinning and positioning, immigration opponents have created a perception that offering such a pardon to immigrants would be a sign of weakness, a capitulation to their lawbreaking ways, undermining the rule of law in our nation and setting a dangerous precedent. Hmm. Why does that sound exactly like what the Bush White House and the conspiring telcom companies have garnered. Except, again thanks to the wondrously effective practice of spinning, the warantless wiretapping and illegal telcom eavesdropping has been positioned as anti-terrorist surveillance and a national security imperative. Let’s face it though, it’s also amnesty for the chosen few. Why pardon AT&T, Verizon and Sprint by an overwhelming margin while denying the American Dream to millions of immigrants? Maybe because the telcom giants are political powerhouses that wield untold influence in Washington, D.C. According to research published by Maplight.org*: 94 Democrats in the House of Representatives flip-flopped on the issue over the last three months, initially opposing the amnesty measure but eventually deciding to vote for the retroactive immunity. Of those 94 Democrats, 88 percent received PAC contributions from Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint during the last three years. On average, the Democrats who changed their position each received $8,359 in contributions as compared to $4,987 per Democrat who remained opposed. Among all House members voting on June 20th, the contributions averaged $9,659 to each member of the House voting “YES” (105-Dem, 188-Rep)
$4,810 to each member of the House voting “NO” (128-Dem, 1-Rep). This I’m sure is just the tip of the iceberg, to which we can add the massive pressure by the lobbyists at work for the telcom giants on Capitol Hill. All of it simply goes to prove that amnesty can indeed find a viable home on the Hill, as long as it’s not for hard-working, impoverished immigrants from Latin America but rather for the deep-pocketed multi-billion dollar companies and those they pay to fix the laws in their favor.

The all-important “rule of law” is always tossed about as a sacred cow when pundits and politicos debate immigration. We are a nation that respects the rule of law, the argument goes. So granting amnesty to immigrants undermines the rule of law and could render us a nation of lawbreakers. Chaos would ensue. Kind of like it has in our interrogation methods and our treatment of foreign prisoners or anyone suspected of possible terrorist inclinations due to their heritage, religion, name or associations. Law good. Chaos bad. Unless the chaos helps the rich get richer. Now that the Bush White House and Congress have invented their legal time machine, maybe they’d like to go back in time and make Watergate legal too. Someday Richard Nixon, Scooter Libby, and the CEO’s of AT&T, Verizon and Sprint can all have a good laugh over this in Heaven, unless the final judge does not share our general support of retroactive immunity. Either way it seems like a very dangerous precedent. According to the New York Times on June 20:

“Perhaps the most important concession that Democratic leaders claimed was an affirmation that the intelligence restrictions were the ‘exclusive’ means for the executive branch to conduct wiretapping operations in terrorism and espionage cases. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had insisted on that element, and Democratic staff members asserted that the language would prevent Mr. Bush, or any future president, from circumventing the law. The proposal asserts ‘that the law is the exclusive authority and not the whim of the president of the United States,’ Ms. Pelosi said.”

But if that law can be changed and immunity applied retroactively, as this precedent implies, then how strong is it or any law? How immune is the rule of law to the retroactive influence of major powerbrokers? This decision renders it quite vulnerable in my opinion.

Finally, the whole point of this law is supposedly to help protect our freedoms and our lives from terrorists. But in doing so, we ourselves our compromising those freedoms. The irony is obvious to anyone with half a brain. The tragedy is that in giving in to fear over freedom, we are capitulating as Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said. But not just to the White House and the telcoms, to those who would strike fear in our hearts, those who know that succeeding in changing American culture and law is as powerful as knocking down a couple of tall buildings and extinguishing a few thousand lives. Our surrender to terror happened not on September 11th; it happens every day we vote away our freedoms for fear. And it happens every day we close our hearts and our borders to those seeking not forgiveness but opportunity to build a better life for themselves and in the process a stronger America for all.

*MAPLight.org’s research department findings are based on the combination of contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) with voting data from THOMAS via GovTrack.us.



Perilous Patriotism

When I think of patriotism, certain images and phrases come to mind: the Stars and Stripes, American troops, the Statue of Liberty, our freedoms of speech, expression, religion and assembly. And, of course, big cars, front lawns, white picket fences, baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

“Give me liberty or give me death,” patriot Patrick Henry exhorted the Virgina House of Burgesses in 1775, spurring the decision to send the Virgina troops to the Revolutionary War.

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy beseeched a generation.

I reflect on values our nation has long espoused and is continuously working towards, such as equality of opportunity, the democratic process, racial, cultural and religious tolerance, and humanitarian generosity. After all, symbols and armies are meaningless if they don’t represent and defend authentic, meaningful ideals.

Patriotism is defined as “pride in or devotion to the country somebody was born in or is a citizen of.”

But patriotism is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? It is so because as a value or a form of expression it finds its emotional roots in pride. And while pride can be the personal satisfaction derived from hard-earned accomplishments, it can quickly mushroom into arrogance, a strong feeling of proud self-importance expressed by treating others with contempt or disregard.

How far we’ve fallen from Camelot to the Bush White House. How radically the tone of our nation has devolved from the days of fighting for Civil Rights and joining the Peace Corps to the days of taunting the Axis of Evil. Whereas we once strived earnestly to bridge the domestic disconnects between the ideals we committed to in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, we now snub immigrants and watch from the sidelines as that obsolete scroll crumbling in the National Archives gets trampled upon by Attorney Generals that stand up for torture and retroactively sanction wire taps. Whereas we once sent our young into the world in hopes of making it a better place through teaching and giving, we now focus on propagating the spread of coerced, unsustainable “democratic” regimes through an obstinate reliance on military might.

With this in mind, I was not surprised that in my Thesaurus, patriotism is closely linked to the following terms:

Nationalism: Excessive or fanatical devotion to a nation and its interests, often associated with a belief that one country is superior to all others.

Jingoism: Zealous patriotism expressing itself especially in hostility toward other countries.

Chauvinism: Unreasoning, overenthusiastic, and aggressive patriotism; an excessive or prejudiced loyalty to a particular gender, group or cause.

Xenophobia: An intense fear or dislike of foreign people, their customs and culture, or foreign things.

Ever the enigma, America certainly does not dislike “foreign things,” as evidenced by our trade deficit with China and every other major industrialized nation. But if the sincere, well-intentioned patriotism Americans duly earned over two hundred years and generations of progress based on the strong principles of our Founding Fathers is our Dr. Jeckyll, then our Mr. Hyde is increasingly revealing the monstrous countenance of nationalism, jingoism and xenophobia.

This is why it has been so easy for the Far Right to attack Barack and Michelle Obama’s patriotism. Because the Obamas are willing to think about – and question – the decisions of our leaders, the direction of our country? Because they look different from past White House inhabitants? Because Barack is the son of an immigrant with an all-too-foreign-sounding name? This is why after 9/11, cultural cowards and xenophobes have been able to leverage fear of Islamic terrorists into a full-blown betrayal of our tradition as an immigrant nation by ignoring the need for comprehensive immigration reform and instead putting up fences along the Southern Border while waging war in the Middle East against any Arab who will stand in our way. In our way of what? Not the oil as prices skyrocket. Not our safety as the terrorists did not hail from Iraq and there were never any WMD. But “in the way” of our ego, our unquestionable supremacy, our imperial ambitions, just simply “in our way,” regardless of where we’re headed in our anachronistic, laughable Hummers, a nation of pissed off warriors without a justifiable cause who can’t even afford to refuel our tanks for very much longer.

Patriotism run amuck can do a lot of damage pretty fast. So far it has emptied our coffers and tarnished our image, while spilling the blood of thousands and leaving a heap of armor to rust on the battlefield. So far it has indebted us to the foreign nations we so fear so that we can wear our Emperor’s clothes. Sustainable attire for the 21st century? This patriot doesn’t think so. So this 4th of July, I say we consider starting from scratch. We need a new outfit, a new attitude and a new way of expressing our patriotism, by a recommitment to the principles and ideals that once made our upstart nation a beacon of hope for people the world over. We should get back to basics, do what we’ve done best over the centuries: stop fighting and start loving. I know that might make me sound like a wannabe Hippie, but why not? All of our problems stem from too much pride and vanity, too much of an obsession with the absolute, too much of a passion for too singular and narrow a definition of what is good and righteous and American. If we could only get along with the other kids on the playground, starting with our backyard and extending from there to the global jungle gym, we might have a chance to salvage our dignity and our relevance. And you start not by thumping your chest and telling everyone how great you are, but by listening, appreciating the beauty and uniqueness in others, learning from them, weaving their wonder into the fabric of our nation, our culture, and eventually waving a flag that the whole world can take pride in, not just a privileged, deluded few.

That’s the America I’m fighting for with my actions and my words. My birth nation is a place where the Statue of Liberty’s original intent should be honored still, where its torch should continue to optimistically light the way for the world’s weary, huddled masses, where our decisions should be driven by opportunity and acceptance rather than fear and intolerance. My country is a place where salsa now sells more than ketchup, chainlink is as common as white pickets, and flan and soccer find a comfortable place alongside apple pie and baseball. The world is changing. America must change. And so must our definition of patriotism if we are to survive.