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A Crisis in the Making: Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them

The Free Press WV

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”—Thomas Jefferson

We are approaching critical mass, the point at which all hell breaks loose.

The government is pushing us ever closer to a constitutional crisis.

What makes the outlook so much bleaker is the utter ignorance of the American people—and those who represent them—about their freedoms, history, and how the government is supposed to operate.

As Morris Berman points out in his book Dark Ages America, “70 percent of American adults cannot name their senators or congressmen; more than half don’t know the actual number of senators, and nearly a quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sixty-three percent cannot name the three branches of government. Other studies reveal that uninformed or undecided voters often vote for the candidate whose name and packaging (e.g., logo) are the most powerful; color is apparently a major factor in their decision.”

More than government corruption and ineptitude, police brutality, terrorism, gun violence, drugs, illegal immigration or any other so-called “danger” that threatens our nation, civic illiteracy may be what finally pushes us over the edge.

As Thomas Jefferson warned, no nation can be both ignorant and free.

Unfortunately, the American people have existed in a technology-laden, entertainment-fueled, perpetual state of cluelessness for so long that civic illiteracy has become the new normal for the citizenry.

It’s telling that Americans were more able to identify Michael Jackson as the composer of a number of songs than to know that the Bill of Rights was the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In fact, most immigrants who aspire to become citizens know more about national civics than native-born Americans. Surveys indicate that half of native-born Americans couldn’t correctly answer 70% of the civics questions on the U.S. Citizenship test.

Not even the government bureaucrats who are supposed to represent us know much about civics, American history and geography, or the Constitution although they take an oath to uphold, support and defend the Constitution against “enemies foreign and domestic.”

For instance, a couple attempting to get a marriage license was recently forced to prove to a government official that New Mexico is, in fact, one of the 50 states and not a foreign country.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Here’s a classic example of how surreal the landscape has become.

Just in time for Bill of Rights Day on December 15, President Trump issued a proclamation affirming the importance of the Bill of Rights in guarding against government abuses of power.

“The Founding Fathers understood the real threat government can pose to the rights of the people… That is why those first 10 Amendments to the Constitution, among others, protected the right to speak freely, the right to freely worship, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to due process of law. As a part of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, the Bill of Rights has protected our rights effectively against the abuse of government power for 227 years… Since there will always be a temptation for government to abuse its power, we reaffirm our commitment to defend the Bill of Rights and uphold the Constitution.”

Don’t believe it for a second.

The government doesn’t want its abuses checked and it certainly doesn’t want its powers restricted.

For that matter, this is not a president who holds the Constitution in high esteem.

After all, Trump routinely rails against the rights enshrined in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, decrying the free speech rights of protesters, denouncing the media (which enjoys freedom of the press) as the enemy of the people, supporting government efforts to seize private property through asset forfeiture and eminent domain, refusing to denounce the use of internment camps to detain American citizens, sneering at due process, and encouraging police officers to use excessive force against suspects.

As law professor Garrett Epps notes:

Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.”

To be fair, it’s not all Trump’s fault.

Indeed, we wouldn’t be in this sorry state if it weren’t for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and the damage their administrations inflicted on the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which historically served as the bulwark from government abuse.

In the so-called named of national security, since 9/11, the Constitution has been steadily chipped away at, undermined, eroded, whittled down, and generally discarded to such an extent that what we are left with is but a shadow of the robust document adopted more than two centuries ago.

The Bill of Rights—462 words that represent the most potent and powerful rights ever guaranteed to a group of people officially—became part of the U.S. Constitution on December 15, 1791, because early Americans such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson understood the need to guard against the government’s inclination to abuse its power.

Yet the reality we must come to terms with is that in the America we live in today, the government does whatever it wants.

Make no mistake: if our individual freedoms have been restricted, it is only so that the government’s powers could be expanded at our expense.

The USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, drove a stake through the heart of the Bill of Rights, violating at least six of the ten original amendments—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments—and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well. The Patriot Act also redefined terrorism so broadly that many non-terrorist political activities such as protest marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience were considered potential terrorist acts, thereby rendering anyone desiring to engage in protected First Amendment expressive activities as suspects of the surveillance state.

Since 9/11, we’ve been spied on by surveillance cameras, eavesdropped on by government agents, had our belongings searched, our phones tapped, our mail opened, our email monitored, our opinions questioned, our purchases scrutinized (under the USA Patriot Act, banks are required to analyze your transactions for any patterns that raise suspicion and to see if you are connected to any objectionable people), and our activities watched.

We’ve also been subjected to invasive patdowns and whole-body scans of our persons and seizures of our electronic devices in the nation’s airports and at border crossings. We can’t even purchase certain cold medicine at the pharmacy anymore without it being reported to the government and our names being placed on a watch list.

Government surveillance, militarized police, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, eminent domain, overcriminalization, armed surveillance drones, whole body scanners, stop and frisk searches (all sanctioned by Congress, the White House, the courts and the like), etc.: these are merely the weapons of the police state.

The power of the police state is dependent on a populace that meekly obeys without question.

Remember: when it comes to the staggering loss of civil liberties, the Constitution hasn’t changed. Rather, it is the American people who have changed.

Those who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that the government exists at the behest of its citizens. The government’s purpose is to protect, defend and even enhance our freedoms, not violate them.

It was no idle happenstance that the Constitution opens with these three powerful words: “We the people.” Those who founded this country knew quite well that every citizen must remain vigilant or freedom would be lost. As Thomas Paine recognized, “It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government.”

You have no rights unless you exercise them.

Still, you can’t exercise your rights unless you know what those rights are.

“If Americans do not understand the Constitution and the institutions and processes through which we are governed, we cannot rationally evaluate important legislation and the efforts of our elected officials, nor can we preserve the national unity necessary to meaningfully confront the multiple problems we face today,” warns the Brennan Center in its Civic Literacy Report Card. “Rather, every act of government will be measured only by its individual value or cost, without concern for its larger impact. More and more we will ‘want what we want, and [will be] convinced that the system that is stopping us is wrong, flawed, broken or outmoded.’”

Education precedes action.

As the Brennan Center concludes “America, unlike most of the world’s nations, is not a country defined by blood or belief. America is an idea, or a set of ideas, about freedom and opportunity. It is these ideas that bind us together as Americans and have kept us free, strong, and prosperous. But these ideas do not perpetuate themselves. They must be taught and learned anew with each generation.”

There is a movement underway to require that all public-school students pass the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization test100 basic facts about U.S. history and civics—before receiving their high-school diploma, and that’s a start.

Mind you, it’s only the first of many steps.

If there is to be any hope for restoring our freedoms and reclaiming our runaway government, we will have to start by breathing life into those three powerful words that set the tone for everything that follows in the Constitution: “we the people.”

People get the government they deserve.

As David Fouse writes for National Review, “A government by the people, for the people, and of the people is only as wise, as just, and as free as the people themselves.

It’s up to us.

We have the power to make and break the government.

We the American people—the citizenry—are the arbiters and ultimate guardians of America’s welfare, defense, liberty, laws and prosperity.

It’s time to stop waiting patiently for change to happen. Do more than grouse and complain.

We must act—and act responsibly.

Get outraged, get off your duff and get out of your house, get in the streets, get in people’s faces, get down to your local city council, get over to your local school board, get your thoughts down on paper, get your objections plastered on protest signs, get your neighbors, friends and family to join their voices to yours, get your representatives to pay attention to your grievances, get your kids to know their rights, get your local police to march in lockstep with the Constitution, get your media to act as watchdogs for the people and not lapdogs for the corporate state, get your act together, and get your house in order.

In other words, get moving. 

A healthy, representative government is hard work. It takes a citizenry that is informed about the issues, educated about how the government operates, and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stay involved, whether that means forgoing Monday night football in order to attend a city council meeting or risking arrest by picketing in front of a politician’s office.

Don’t wait for things to get as bad as they are in France, where civil unrest over a government  proposal to raise taxes on gas has turned into violent clashes between protesters and the police.

Whatever you do, please don’t hinge your freedoms on politics.

No election will ever truly alleviate the suffering of the American people.

No matter which party controls Congress or the White House, the government as we have come to know it—corrupt, bloated and controlled by big-money corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups—remains largely unchanged. And “we the people”—overtaxed, overpoliced, overburdened by big government, underrepresented by those who should speak for us and blissfully ignorant of the prison walls closing in on us—continue to trudge along a path of misery.

Remember what Noam Chomsky had to say about politics? “It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars.

In other words, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we’re being sold a carefully crafted product by a monied elite who are masters in the art of making the public believe that they need exactly what is being sold to them, whether it’s the latest high-tech gadget, the hottest toy, or the most charismatic politician.

It’s just another Blue Pill, a manufactured reality conjured up by the matrix in order to keep the populace compliant and convinced that their vote counts and that they still have some influence over the political process.

Don’t buy any of it.

The Constitution is neutral when it comes to politics. What the Constitution is not neutral about, however, is the government’s duty to safeguard the rights of the citizenry.

“We the people” also have a duty that goes far beyond the act of voting: it’s our job to keep freedom alive using every nonviolent means available to us.

As Martin Luther King Jr. recognized in a speech delivered on December 5, 1955, just four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus: “Democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.”

Know your rights. Exercise your rights. Defend your rights. If not, you will lose them.

John W. Whitehead

Reason It’s Hard to Quit Amazon Is Pretty Simple

The Free Press WV

In a piece at Slate, Shannon Palus takes note of two things about Amazon: A staggering 100 million people or so have Prime subscriptions, and yet more people seem to be canceling their subscriptions in protest. The reason for the latter, as spelled out in Vox, is an apparent rising concern over labor issues and Amazon’s monopolistic ways. But while Palus applauds those making a statement by ditching Prime, she’s not about to cast judgment on those who won’t. “It’s simply not a step that everyone can take, and that’s not just because people are unwilling to forgo convenience,“ she writes. “It’s easy to forget, because everyone has to do it and it’s often pleasurable, but shopping is labor.“

Prime, especially for those struggling to make ends meet, can be “a Band-Aid, helping them save money and time,“ writes Palus. She talks to several people who explain why they don’t feel they can give it up, including a young couple who have giant boxes of diapers delivered to their second-floor condo at a discount of 20%. She suggests that people like this who still want to support the Amazon protests can cut back in smaller ways, like not taking part in additional services such as same-day delivery. And they can also be vocal about their concerns. “Small actions, if broadcast to a social network and in turn, to politicians, can help spur that change.“ Read the full piece.

Jeanette Riffle: Why We Celebrate Christmas

The Free Press WV

I’m glad that we were taken to church as babies.  Like I have said before, I can remember my Warner grandparents, on Mom’s side, carrying me into the Methodist church at Crooked Run, when Dad was off fighting in WW 11 and then when he came back, Mom, Dad and I went to the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church of Stumptown, WV.  We rode with my grandmother Stewart, because Dad didn’t get a car until I was about five years old. When I was old enough to go in a class of my own, I loved hearing those old testament Bible stories and then at Christmas time, the story of baby Jesus being born in a manager. The first teacher I remember was Bess Moore, a neighbor lady of ours. Our parents and Grandmother Stewart on Dad’s side made sure that my brothers and I understood the true meaning of Christmas each year.

There was always so much excitement as Christmas morning drew near. Mom and Dad had ordered things from catalogs and Dad went to every country store nearby and bought lots of candy, nuts to crack, oranges and gifts. He bought chocolate drops, chocolate covered raisins and peanuts, coconut candy and a little of everything they had.  Mom made her peanut butter and chocolate fudge.  She would buy up chocolate covered cherries and hide them before Christmas. I found a box one time in the junk room, at the bottom of a pile of clothes, old quilts and things on the closet floor.  I ate one and it was too rich for me. That’s all I wanted for that time. I never could eat more than one or two of those.  My husband just loves them.

My parents both went through the Great Depression and they really appreciated having plenty of food.  Mom didn’t get enough candy and she told of pinching the lumps out of the brown sugar bag. She said she knew they wouldn’t miss that. Dad said he ate turnips one whole winter with potatoes, beans and cornbread. He still liked turnips, though. There were six kids in his family and he said they would hang up a stocking and the next morning it had been filled with an orange, an apple, nuts and some candy and that was Christmas, so Mom and Dad relived their childhood by providing all they could for the four of us kids. They wanted us to have it better than they did.

Until next time, take care and God bless!

Protecting the most vulnerable from genocide

The Free Press WV

Ghosts of European colonialism still haunt us today even in the 21st century. This was evident from the untimely death of American John Allen Chau, 26, from Washington state on November 16th at the hands of Sentinelese-Jarawa people from the Andaman Islands.

The last days of Mr. Chau are reminiscent of the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965) by late naturalist, Peter Mathiessen, where everything goes wrong for the Christian missionaries, as they did for Chau. This young American was naively determined to eradicate what he called “Satan’s last stronghold” in the world and paid for it with his life.

There are only about 100 Sentinelese-Jarawa people left. They are fiercely independent, rejecting contact with outsiders and culturally remaining intact. Jarawa are small-statured and ebony-complexioned and thought to be remnants of people who originally migrated thousands of years ago from Africa and settled in the Andaman Islands east of India and west of Myanmar. For the most part, the Indian government has been successful in preventing interlopers from accessing their island. Chau paid some local fishermen to reach these remote Jarawa people.

As these tribal people have managed to remain isolated, they are also highly susceptible to viral contagion, even from the common cold and flu.

As an anthropologist who writes about indigenous issues, I am aware how much European colonialism is an ever-present issue in the minds and memories of many indigenous peoples because of the horrifying genocide wreaked upon them.

Indeed, there are very few “uncontacted” indigenous peoples remaining in our globalized planet. The majority of uncontacted natives may be found in the Amazon region in the borderland areas of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. Anthropologists are continually worried about the safety of such vulnerable people because of their lacking immunity to Western-borne illnesses and threats from outsiders as tourists, illegal loggers, and gold miners encroaching upon their territories.

In assessing the situation of isolated people like the Sentinelese-Jarawa of the Andaman Islands as well as the isolated Amerindians in the Amazon, we need to return to the history of Western thought and Western civilization for explaining the problems associated with contact in relation to indigenous peoples and Europeans.

We may begin with the Abrahamic religions’ origin story of Adam and Eve, who bit from the forbidden fruit of knowledge in the biblical Old Testament and were ejected from Eden by Yahweh. The symbolism is fairly clear. The Garden of Eden represents idyllic nature, the millennia when humankind spent hunting and gathering until the Neolithic Revolution about 12,000 years ago with the domestication of plants and animals. This was the so-called transition to civilization, eventually producing states, writing, hierarchies and class systems, organized religion, slavery, mass warfare, science, astronomy, mathematics, and genocide. It was a knowledge supposing humankind was somehow separate from nature and humans were superior to nature—at least to Western minds in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What is more, in the “Age of Exploration,” Europeans believed they had to “civilize” non-Western people and bring them God’s word and convert natives to European ways. As such, along with killing and torturing natives, Europeans made it a practice of saving indigenes from their supposed state of nature, ignorance, and savagery.

When the Portuguese first landed in Brazil in 1500, Pêro Vaz de Caminha wrote King Manoel I: “They seem to be such innocent people that, if we could understand their speech and they ours, they would immediately become Christians. For it appears that they do not have or understand any faith…” Salvation of natives indeed became one of the primary projects of the conquest.

Such religious proselytizing supposes, like Mr. Chau, native peoples have no minds and no wills of their own and are devoid of proper religious thought. They are rather native objects and vessels who require filling with the true faith brought to them by force, if necessary—why would God give the means of force to the colonizers unless He wanted them to convert the natives?

Witness accounts from the Spanish conquest such as those of Bartolomé de las Casas describe how devastating the violence against Indians was, such as during the invasion of Peru: “…I affirm that with my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose, hands, and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it, and this they did in so many places that it would take a long time to recount.”

Similarly, here is an eyewitness account by Captain Nicholas Hodt of an 1861 massacre of Navajo (Diné) in present-day Arizona: “The Navahos, squaws, and children ran in all directions and were shot and bayoneted. I succeeded in forming about twenty men…I then marched out to the east side of the post; there I saw a soldier murdering two little children and a woman. I hallooed immediately to the soldier to stop. He looked up, but did not obey my order…”

The arc of history of this protracted genocide, from massacres like “Wounded Knee” against the Sioux in 1890, or more recently, the effects of development in the Brazilian Amazon during the 1960s, is long and collectively never forgotten by descendants of the victims. In every case, aboriginal peoples are subsequently plagued by a sense of loss of their identities, homelands, ways of life, cultures, resulting often in alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, and suicide.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, Hitler partially based his ideas of the concentration camp and extermination of European Jews on Native American reservations and our racial policies in the United States. Americans systematically conquered original peoples and justified the ensuing genocide with the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by journalist John O’Sullivan, meaning the divine right to settle the continental United States from “sea to shining sea.” The Natives were just part of the natural landscape and in the way.

Genocide continues happening now in Brazil with the persecution of the Guarani-Kaiowá on ranch lands in Mato Grosso do Sul. Even more worrying is that newly-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promises to persecute Brazilian Amerindians for their lands.

Like the Sentinelese-Jarawa who voluntarily choose to be isolated, the Mashco-Piro people of Western Peru live by choice without contact. As anthropologist Glenn Shepard, of the Museu Emilio Goeldi of Brazil, explains: “…Isolated Amazonian groups have not remained stuck in the Stone Age since time immemorial. Rather, they have resorted to ‘voluntary isolation’ in modern times in order to survive.”

“Civilization” is an ambivalent outcome at best for indigenous peoples. At this late date, it is likely that we can learn much more from them than the reverse. After all, their lifeways would sustain for unknown millennia, whereas climate chaos, nuclear annihilation, resource depletion and contamination—products of conquering empires—are supplanting genocide with societal suicide. Time to listen instead of preach, time to slow down, consume much less, and respect all peoples and our planet.

J. P. Linstroth has a PhD from the University of Oxford in Social and Cultural Anthropology and is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He is author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland.

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