Maybe the guy in the tin foil hat was right

We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris.  All together now: what the hell were they thinking?  I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog.  Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.

Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups.  Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not.  Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?

I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests.  Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization?  There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny.  Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes!  (Is this a great country or what?)  The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.

It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists.  The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones.  It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt.  There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so.  Today we call those people whistleblowers.  When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth.  In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.

We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back.  And this is that.

It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top.  This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power.  If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government.  I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.

When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.”  Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.

Unassigned additional reading:

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Even Fred Flintstone was down with having a gay old time

Quick follow-up on the New York gay marriage vote, while waiting for a rational explanation from those in the “states’ rights” crowd who support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prevent states from exerting their rights on this issue:

–hooray for the mayor of New York’s unequivocal support for gay marriage: it’s the right thing to do, opposing it is the same as opposing women’s rights or civil rights or the abolition of slavery, the law won’t require religions to perform or sanction a same sex marriage…and although people are free to belong to any religious group American society as a whole places its faith in the Constitution, not some set of religious laws.

–the Obama Administration isn’t defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and when House Republicans threaten to fight an 81-year-old woman over it even the lawyers bail out.

–the gay marriage issue helped a president win re-election in 2004; now some political pros think the Democrats can use gay marriage to hammer Republicans in 2012 because it could pull traditional Republicans away from the right-wing Christian evangelicals taking over the GOP.

–and looking into the future far beyond 2012, how many of us have even thought about how all this kerfuffle over gay rights will be viewed by our descendants?

News on the march

Tidying up the files and hoping no one has noticed the “funny” little comments at the top of the page while I find out where they’re coming from:

I am still annoyed at the decision announced last month by the Obama Administration not to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged September 11 attack plotters in civilian court…actually, “shameful” is the word that first came to mind.  It caved in to bullying and fear-mongering from those who don’t really trust the justice system and want a guarantee of a conviction, which they believe they get from a military tribunal instead of a dozen New Yorkers off the street (I refer you to a prior discussion to the issue last year).   On the other hand, Osama bin Laden didn’t get a public trial, either…

Good news and bad from our Texas Legislature.  The state senator who took heat for her plan to railroad accused sex offenders by changing the rules of evidence in their trials had the temerity to defend her position in the paper by claiming her plan actually protects the rights of the accused!  On the other hand, the bogus statistical machination that the state education agency has been using to falsely pump up the annual student assessment test results is on its way out.

In another development on the fungible facts front, the Arizona senator who intentionally misspoke on the Senate floor about the use of funds by Planned Parenthood, and who had his press secretary try to explain it all away by assuring reporters that those words were “not intended to be a factual statement,” has had the Congressional Record edited so that he’s not lying misspeaking anymore.  Because members of Congress have granted themselves the “privilege” to do things like that.

Some days you think you have a pretty good handle on things and the world is spinning in greased grooves…and then you’ve got to figure out how to reconcile that world with one in which an Iranian government power struggle in the 21st century has led to arrests on charges of sorcery, and where the Chinese have outlawed time travel in works of fiction.  If they’re against mythical stories, why do they keep calling their country a republic?