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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Happy birthday, Patriot Act - and the gutting of civil liberties

It's been a decade since the USA Patriot Act was rushed into law amid the fear and convulsions that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, and I had hoped that by now the passions would have cooled, sanity would have been regained, and the damned thing would have been allowed to die, or at least been gutted.

Instead, Congress earlier this year gave it new life.

The Washington Post has an op-ed that partially pulls the curtain back on some of the abuses of the provisions of the act, which have turned Americans, often against their will, into gagged co-conspirators in highly objectionable fishing expeditions into the private lives of fellow citizens.

One of the most egregious tools is the use of National Security Letters, whose use was expanded under the Patriot Act. These letters allow the FBI to give themselves permission, without judicial oversight, to dig into the private records and lives of people they determine to be of interest on grounds of national security.

In May 2009, the Department of Justice reported to Congress (the most recent report I could find) that "In 2008, the FBI made 24,744 NSL requests (excluding requests for subscriber information only) for information concerning United States persons. These sought information pertaining to 7,225 different United States persons."

Dissect that number. That's almost 68 letters a day, every day of the year, authorizing itself to look at information it otherwise had no right to see. An earlier report said the government had issued 143,074 NSLs from 2003 to 2005 (inclusive). That is domestic spying by the government on an unfathomable scale. In the 11 years prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, the FBI issued a total of 8,500 NSLs.

As I wrote in my recent book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, these are the acts of a government convulsing in fear. It was fear of fascism and communism that led to the 1940 Smith Act that, for a time, outlawed a specific political belief here in the land of political freedoms. There are direct parallels to the Patriot Act in that each was adopted in response to external pressures, and each had the unintended consequence of trampling some of the rights we believe sets us apart as a nation:

The use of the Smith Act against Communist Party leaders was an effective attempt by the U.S. government to criminalize political belief, flouting both the U.S. Constitution and a national tradition of political freedom and openness. The Smith Act was spawned by rising fear of fascism, and in some ways it is the sire of the USA Patriot Act. Both grew out of legitimate concerns, but the effects of the laws undercut the very thing they were supposed to protect: the American way of life. As the rallying cry went in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks, “The terrorists hate us for our freedoms.” But the USA Patriot Act trumped many of those freedoms, giving the government the authority to, among other things, conduct warrantless searches, track personal reading habits, and muzzle those forced to cooperate with the secret investigations. Thus in the name of anti-terrorism authorities can enter private homes without the resident’s knowledge, or demand details of the books that have been bought at stores or checked out from the library, all under a blanket of secrecy and, in many cases, without judicial review. In its name, and in search of radicalism, police have infiltrated peace groups and religious organizations. These are not the conditions of a free society. These are the acts of a police state, and they stand the nation’s basic principles of freedom of belief and political association—not to mention the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—on their head.



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Sorry, America, for not helping out with that recovery thing

Three years ago last month my job at the Los Angeles Times was eliminated, sending me off on this odd hybrid career of freelancing, book writing and teaching. And a much-reduced role as a consumer. In Sunday's Times, I weigh in on what that transition means for the rest of you, and our prognosis for economic recovery. From the piece:
I may owe the nation an apology. It turns out I'm a prime reason why the U.S. economy can't regain its footing. Because as a wage-earner, and as a consumer, I'm not what I used to be. ... It's how we and others in our situation are living now that helps explain the persistence of the economic crisis, and hints at the troubles of the future. ...[W]e're spending significantly less than we once did, forming an incremental drag on the economic recovery. Ironically, we have more money salted away in our savings account now than before my job was cut. That's what financial fear does; it makes you hoard cash.

So we patronize fewer restaurants, buy fewer books (a painful cutback for an author; if I'm not buying their books, are they not buying mine?), and rarely contemplate a weekend train getaway to Santa Barbara or San Diego. Take in a professional hockey or baseball game with the family? Um, no.

But a recovery needs us to spend. So we're not helping. And that's why the future is worrisome. We never were high-debt spenders (at the moment, mortgage, car payments and a small credit card balance are our only outstanding debts), but it's highly unlikely our household spending will ever again be what it was.


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It's William Kennedy's world; Albany just lives in it

I've been reading William Kennedy's novels for almost as long as he's been writing them, and was tapped to review his latest, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes for the Los Angeles Times.

Short review: Very good.

Longer version: Racial divisions propel the novel much more heavily than the earlier books in his famous "Albany cycle," which includes Ironweed, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Legs, among others. And it could also be the farthest Kennedy has strayed from Albany, with a large segment set in revolutionary Cuba (which Kennedy covered as a journalist). But it fits right in with Kennedy's body of work. And that's a good thing.

It's been a while since Kennedy has published a novel - Roscoe, in 2002 - was his most recent. So it's been a while since I've read him. Chango's Beads makes me want to dive into the stacks to revisit some of those old works, which is about as good of an endorsement as a writer can hope for - the new novel both emulating and reminding of the great work he has produced. And, with Kennedy in his early 80s, you also have to wonder how many more novels he has in him.

From my review ....

And "Changó's Beads" (which refers to the protection offered by a Santería god) carries its own internal cycles. The novel that begins with Cody and [Bing] Crosby singing "Shine" ends after a racially charged performance of the song by Cody, alone, transforming the piece from self-mocking minstrelsy into soul-baring jazz as the streets outside explode in racial violence.

That really is what Kennedy has been writing about all along. Memory, conflict and redemption. Love, loss and betrayal. Small lives caught up with the big ones. The tastes and tones of neighborhoods, and the human stories that do a much better job of defining place than any map ever could.

And, throughout the novel, how failure can be pursued as madly as success.
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Between things, also known as thumb-twiddling

So last week I sent back the answers to copy-editing questions on the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, and am now awaiting the arrival of some photos to pass along to the designers at Chicago Review Press as they move onto laying out the book. Next up: Page proofs, where I get to see what the book will look like when it comes out.

Meanwhile, when not teaching and writing freelance pieces, I've been looking around for the next project, which is both fun and vexing. The fun is obvious - I spend time diving down rabbit holes in search of something that will fascinate me enough to devote large chunks of the foreseeable future, and that will fascinate enough of you to attract a publisher.

There, as the saying goes, lies the rub. And the vexation. I dug into one story that I loved, about a collection of some two dozen European displaced persons who, in the years after WWII, slipped out of the Soviet-occupied Baltics to Sweden, worked to pool their money, bought a small sailing ship and then, with only the captain and one other person having ever spent any time at sea, sailed to America using a sextant and a wristwatch. Great story; minimal historic record from which to craft a narrative. Next.

I looked at the searing drought in Texas, and the parallels to the Dust Bowl years, tipped to the idea by a New York Times piece. Alas, the parallels weren't quite so parallel. Next.

I still have hopes that a narrative can be built out of a story about the collapse of a single bank in the Great Depression, but again, finding sufficient and specific historical records from which to build a human narrative is proving to be elusive. Next.

I looked at a rural suicide in the midst of the Great Recession: Too depressing, I was told. Few readers would buy a book about that. I thought about a book exploring how our near-religious quest as a society for the lowest possible price was cheap-skating ourselves out of economic existence (the money we save as consumers means domestic jobs lost, which means less money spent to push the economy, in a vicious downward cycle). No traction there, either. Spent last night exploring the birth of the first transcontinental telegraph, which in many ways also signaled the birth of modern America. Nice, my wife said, but where's the drama? Where, indeed.

So, next? Wish I knew. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I see a couple of rabbit holes over there that need some exploring....


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A little gypsy jazz for your Monday morning

See, it's not always about books, history, and politics around here (or travel, for that matter). My sons, Michael (guitar) and Andrew (bass), at an open jam Sunday at an Irvine restaurant (the distortion from the bass was a problem with the camera's microphone).




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On protests, and why 'the goals' are irrelevant

The national media have been slow to decide that the anti-Wall Street protests are newsworthy enough to cover, and their confusion remains considerable. We'll set aside speculation about how deeply covered the protests would have been had they involved Tea Partiers outside the Capitol Building and move on to something more troubling: Many of my journalistic colleagues don't seem to understand what they're looking at.

A story from the Washington Post popped up earlier today under the headline, "‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests gain steam, but movement’s goals remain unclear," seems perplexed by an inability to find someone in charge to give voice to a specific agenda.

The New York Times had a piece on Friday that was even worse, taking an arch, mocking tone about the names and ambitions of a handful of the participants. You can imagine The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley figure peering down his nose, amused and bemused by all those poor people. Two participants, we are told, stopped by for a few days at the start of a ramble around the country. Two others were named Hero, and Germ. Though maybe not, We're told in the lede that Germ was there, but the story says the two rambles met him at a homeless shelter in Rhode Island. But once you have a name like that in hand, well, it just has to get in the story somehow. "Most of the demonstrators are in their teens or 20s," the story says, "but plenty are older. Many are students. Many are jobless. A few are well-worn anarchists. Others have put their normal lives on pause to try out protesting and see how it feels." Yes, darling, such a lark, shall we trot down to the protests, then, and see how it feels?

More problematic than these stories - there are many others - and their inability to crystallize and present what has been happening, is the presumption that the protests have to have a unified agenda - a list of demands to be met. A way to keep score for the eventual dissection of who won and lost.

But sometimes a scream of frustration, and of rage, is just as simple as it sounds.






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