Friday, September 11, 2009

Politicians may hate us, but we should trust them anyway

Deputies of Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff's Office are being, rightfully, lambasted, for confiscating a journalist's camera even as they tell him, "We're not on the same level, here. I'm up here, you're down here." But there's more to that dismissive comment than the arrogance of one cop or one agency; there's an insight into general government attitudes toward the public. Officials entrusted with the power of the state often develop open contempt for the people they coerce -- which raises big questions about the wisdom of giving them an even bigger say in our lives.

There's an awful lot of quasi-theological nonsense in circulation these days about how "we are the government." The premise seems to be that, because the country was set up by founders invoking nice words about "we the people," and we get to cast votes from time to time, the governing apparatus that exists today is a sort of direct expression of the will of the population.

Does the population even have a single will? Well, never mind.

But, if the people are the government, officeholders seem to miss that point -- frequently.

It's a moment of truth when a police officer admits his disdain for the public in a recording he mistakenly believes is about to be destroyed. But what does it mean when elected officials voice their contempt in front of a room full of people -- or reporters?

Indiana's Rep. Baron Hill currently faces a wave of criticism over his answer to a question about why he'd forbidden recording a town hall meeting with members of the public.

"This my my town hall meeting for you. And you're not going to tell me how to run my congressional office. Now the reason why I don't allow filming is because usually the films that are done end up on YouTube in a compromising position."

Fortunately, Hill's refusal to be recorded was secretly videotaped -- and posted to YouTube.

Sometimes, officials of sufficient power don't care who is listening. Last December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised a fuss with his off-the-cuff comment in front of journalists that the new Capitol Visitors Center will make visits by constituents a little less offensive.

"In the summertime, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol."

And just as often, government officials don't want to do any listening themselves. Under former President George W. Bush, people critical of the government were shuffled off into "designated free-speech zones" out of sight or hearing of the president. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued over the practice:

[P]eople expressing views critical of the government were moved further away from public officials while those with pro-government views were allowed to remain closer; or everyone expressing a view was herded into what is commonly known as a ""protest zone,"" leaving those who merely observe, but express no view, to remain closer.

In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security warned law-enforcement agencies to look out for anybody who "expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government."

That's not a far cry from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent complaint that critics of the current administration are "un-American."

Let's face it. Government officials high and low alternately fear and despise the people over whom they rule (and supposedly serve). They'd much prefer that we let them get about the business of setting the laws and regulations by which we have to live, without raising any peeps of protest about the details -- or straying too near their exalted selves.

They want to rule without excessive interaction with the ruled.

We can discuss all day why people with such attitudes rise to positions of political and legal authority -- there's a PhD thesis or three in there. But the fact is that people who look down on the public demonstrably occupy positions of great power.

So, given what we know about government officials' attitudes toward us, why would we even consider allowing them to expand their reach into our lives? Do we really want people who hold us in contempt to legislate our morality? To control how and when we receive medical care? To monitor our communications? Regulate our businesses?

Could it be that allowing them the extensive say they already have in the conduct of everyday life has helped to create the contempt in which government officials hold the public? After all, a shepherd may tend a flock of sheep, but he's unlikely to hold the creatures in great respect -- respect he saves for the independent creatures prowling beyond his control.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe powerful officials who despise us really can be trusted with even greater authority over our lives. You go first and tell us how it works out.

But, for now, it's worth considering the idea that people who think they're "up here" and we're "down here" already have too much power.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've been reading your articles here for some time. this is one of your best. bravo sir!

September 12, 2009 6:56 AM  
Blogger Johnny said...

Check out the ACLU site, the memos on torture. Your government really is above the law - both International Law and American Criminal Law. Get used to it.

September 12, 2009 7:04 AM  

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