Letters to The Ehical Spectacle

I got my first email account in 1984. Back then I did not feel at all like a pioneer, because I knew people who had been online since 1979. The world I explored through that first Compuserve log-on was a revelation--unprecedented access to information and to a community where I made friends (some lifelong), found law clients and published my own writing.

Eighteen years later, I receive about 120 messages a day. Five to ten of them are viruses. Another five to ten are variations of the Nigerian scam message--each a different person asking to transfer millions of dollars into my account. Other messages I receive daily offer penis enlargement, access to porn sites, pyramid schemes, "work from home" opportunities and (oddly) offers of partnership in wastewater treatment plant construction.

I now have to get through an unprecedented amount of junk to get to your mail. Until a year or two ago, spam was something I could easily delete, never more than ten percent of the total message load. Now it seems like its half or more.

To the individual who wrote criticizing my views on free speech, I deleted your mail accidentally while pruning the spam from my mailbox. Please resend your mail and I will run it in the next Spectacle.

I can be reached as always at jw@bway.net.

Jonathan Wallace

A clarification
In September I ran a letter Peter Bearse wrote to the editor of Harpers, criticizing an article in a recent issue. I published the letter out of context, not even citing the fact that it was a response to a Harper's piece. Peter wrote me the following which puts the article, and his response to it, in context:

The short article which follows was originally written as a letter to the editor of HARPER's in response to "A Year Later," an essay and lead article by Mark Slouka in the magazine's September issue.

The essay offers some good and provocative insights. Yet, it's highly problematic and questionable in places because the author tries to spin an article out of several threads without weaving them with sufficient depth or interconnection to provide whole cloth. Thus, the piece emerges as an interesting patchwork with troubling overtones.

The main thread is our "denial of death" until death hits us horrendously at home as it did the morning of 9/11. Even so, the author suggests, the denial continues. Our immature, even infantile attitude towards death is highlighted by an "Old World," multi-country "charnel house" (Czech "kostnice") metaphor. This is one feature of a major sub-theme -- the greater sophistication of Europeans compared to naive, new-world Americans. After all, our friends across the Atlantic have suffered more, hundreds or thousands of years worth, of death-dealing history on their own soil than we have. Even though some would say that this history may be an albatross around the necks of European cultures, a source of dead weight, Slouka seems to think that it is the source of an attitude that is superior to the American "myth" -- a nation built upon a liberating ideal, that "We, the people...are created equal..."

Slouka's views of his own country's culture are so colored by this Europhile attitude that he fails to understand the meaning of the American "myth," of America being a new Jerusalem, "the City on the Hill." He disparages this, even with snide asides that suggest it may be the cause of our indifference towards mass death in other places (Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Chechnya). So, as a result, he overlooks or implicitly denies its life-animating, life-enriching aspects. In this context, the article below recalls the very different attitude of one of our country's greatest poets towards both myth and America.

The context is completed by simply summarising the "threads" found in the Harper's article:

-- The "myth" of American exceptionalism ("City on a hill") plus claims of its Christian foundation and our "tribal" behavior.

--The meaning of death & "intimations of mortality") and its avoidance among Americans unless it hits as at home, among our own.

-- Lack of a self-critical attitude in American culture ("no redeeming notion of our own sin" as in the years of John Winthrop).

-- Our failure to incorporate Old World wisdom into our thinking; a tendency of Americans to act as if history begins with us, or that we don't have to pay attention to history because we make history.

-- Our hypocrisy.

Peter Bearse maximusmay@aol.com

Year Zero
Dear Mr. Wallace:

Re A Hard Rain

Great wee story.

David Allison d.allison@whsmithnet.co.uk

Hello Mr. Wallace,

I must thank you for your moving and insightful essays. I understand that writing is therapeutic for you, but your words were comforting for me.

We are kindred spirits... I was there. I volunteered and continue to do so.

Victoria Bell

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I had not received an e-mail from this address in so long that I was beginning to despair.  I had thought that you had decided that no one wanted to listen to you an y more.  I thank you so much for your insight on how that side of the U.S. is coping. Please keep mailing to me.

Sincerely, Jacque Alonzo jlove169@hotmail.com

Dear Jonathan:

I was struck in two distinct ways by your essay Democracy is Leaking, concerning assorted unconstitutional depredations visited upon "9-11" suspects. The first part of it is an accurate and compelling account of the facts, and clearly is up to your usual standard of writing. Unfortunately, the second part reflects your usual partisanship, wherein you seem to want to assign sole responsibility for the current problems to Republicans, a President engaged in expedient political calculation, and an Attorney General who is a moral prig.

If anything, both Bush and Ashcroft, however calculating and wrongheaded they may be, are attempting to be TOO democratic by pandering to what both you and I probably regard as the mistaken but nevertheless clear will of the majority. The emotional reaction to "9-11" of a majority of citizens has given them a blank check to do almost anything in order to punish the perpetrators and to prevent further attacks. To modify the old metaphor, the people want their sausage, and they are not particularly fastidious at how it is to be made. However, just as important are the historical precedence of previous administrations and the never-ending sundry "wars" on drugs, organized crime, ordinary crime, ill health, tobacco, ad nauseum, all of which have provided impeccable cover for almost everything done so far in the "War on Terror."

Indeed, invocation of the three-letter word "war" often has the political and legal effect figuratively of overturning the chess board and requiring the start of a new game, usually with the pieces rearranged and with conveniently different rules. Further, the longtime complicity of both the legislative and the judicial branches in assisting the executive branch in violating the Bill of Rights has been the foundation of the present situation. Whenever it has felt the urge for decades, the Supreme Court has been able to interpret the simple clause, "Congress shall make NO law," as meaning "Congress MAY make THIS law" (my emphasis). Why should it be surprising that the present administration is willing to be equally as creative in its reading of other parts of the Constitution? Do you honestly believe that a Gore administration would have handled "9-11" in any significantly different manner? Perhaps your essay should be titled along the lines of "Pure 'Will of the People' Democracy is Flourishing but Constitutional Principles are Leaking."

The serious complaints can be reduced pretty much to one general area, secrecy, and to several specific ones, including violation of habeas corpus, misconduct of trials or potential misuse of military tribunals, and abuse of conspiracy laws. In none of these has the Bush administration been an innovator in circumventing the Constitution. While you did make a passing reference to everyone's favorite ogre of the past, J. Edgar Hoover, curiously you omitted anything concerning earlier American Presidents. Without belaboring the messy details, I'll assume that you are familiar with the long history of Bill of Rights abuses by more than just a few of them. Some examples include such currently fashionable and traditionally beloved statesmen as John "Aliens and Sedition" Adams, Abraham "Habeas Corpus" Lincoln, and Franklin D. "Interment-Camp-without-Trial-and-Military-Tribunal" Roosevelt, to name but three in a spirit of "tri-partisanship." An unkind person could perform a perverse calculus relating the number of American citizens and others held without trial by Bush to that quantity of citizens of Japanese descent held similarly by Roosevelt. I will agree with you that both are immoral, but I trust that you will agree with me that Bush and Ashcroft neither invented the idea nor are practicing it in some uniquely perverse manner.

In fairness, the very widespread abuse of conspiracy laws has been a more recent phenomenon, but again, it did not originate with the present administration. Prior to the past two decades, usually these laws were reserved for use against only the occasional preacher of sedition, labor organizer, or extremist group. However, more recently both Republicans and Democrats have seized gleefully on RICO, drug, tax, asset forfeiture, and conspiracy laws as a means both for legalizing increased state theft of citizens' property and for destroying any particular person or group of whom they disapprove and can't "get" in the more traditional legal way.

As a libertarian who believes strongly in an individual interpretation of the Second Amendment, I cannot let pass your gratuitous use of it to try to paint Ashcroft as holding an extreme position. Indeed, this paragraph is a classic example of what Robert A. Heinlein once described as the most effective way to prevaricate; tell only part of the truth, shut up, and let the listener illogically draw the wrong conclusion.

It is truthful to say that "a prevailing judicial viewpoint" (at least since the Miller case; 1939) has denied the individual right to keep and bear at least some types of firearms. Of course, "the whole truth" would include also some reference both to the almost unanimous views of the Constitution's founders and to the very recent Emerson opinion, which admittedly is yet to be affirmed or overturned by the Supreme Court. More important, you omitted any mention of the overwhelming "constitutional viewpoint" of support for an individual right interpretation by legal scholars and practitioners, as reflected in the ratio of pro and con law review articles over the past two decades. Aside from relatively longtime supporters such as Stephen Halbrook and Don Kates, quite a number of others have joined them. I trust that you do not believe that distinguished lawyers such as William Van Alstyne, Akhil Amar, Sanford Levinson, and even Alan Dershowitz are "gun nuts" or are hand puppets of the NRA. Yet all of them and many others, however reluctantly and in spite of their admitted personal dislike for firearms, have adopted the individual right point of view.

Indeed, one could argue that what Ashcroft has done is to take a middle position both by acknowledging an individual right and of maintaining that it is not absolute. That he has taken the position that a previous Supreme Court decision was wrong hardly is evidence of extremism. Even from our viewpoint today in the 21st century, it is sobering to realize that the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson was the highest "prevailing judicial viewpoint" on racial segregation in public school education for a longer period of time than has been Brown v. Board of Education! I trust that you would not regard as an extremist anyone who disagreed with Plessy in 1950?

Cheers, Joe Oliver Jaydeeo@aol.com

Everything else
Hi. I am a student at UC Riverside and I read your article pertaining to censoring the internet in government based libraries. I do agree with many of your points regarding free speech and many websites can teach and expose the youth to many controversial and important issues, but don't you think that porno-sites still need to be regulated? I'm not sure how this should be banned (?), but perhaps being detailed, rather than "vague", can be useful. Parenting cannot be entirely blamed, because I know that my own parents weren't watching my every move, but how can they? I'm sure that everyone experiences things as a child that you just don't want to tell your parents about, so how are they supposed to regulate and teach the child about it? I'm not exactly sure why I am writing to you. I guess I wanted to hear a little more about what you think about this issue. I know in our college library and computer labs they tell us not to look at anything obscene or offensive to anyone else. I don't know how that rule could really pertain to a vast number of public libraries, but what is the real answer? Just let it be?


Dear Jonathan:

In my article that you have archived at http://www.spectacle.org/1201/lawrence.html I wrote "...There is a further and particular risk for Australia. The right way to inflict terror, Schrecklichkeit, is to pick a suitable victim and annihilate him comprehensively. The victim has nothing to negotiate. What the aggressor wants, and gets, is for some of the observers to hang back or change sides - to split a coalition. It is their behaviour that matters, when they see that the ally of the main player gets no support. We could end up being the object lesson, hung out to dry to show that the USA can't even protect its friends."

Does any of this seem familiar these days?

Peter Lawrence