Posted on May 13, 2016
I can think of several historic ways to evaluate the state of American freedom. The most immediate criterion is: what actually happens to dissenters, minorities, and oddballs. The results are mixed.
As to political activists, on the one hand we have no Palmer raids. Nonviolent law-abiding opponents of the War on Terror or the National Security state can go about their business with little overt disruption, other than awareness of an occasional police spy. On the other hand, we have successfully criminalized leaking the public’s business to the public. Daniel Ellsworth was exonerated as a hero, while Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are treated as fearsome criminals.
And as to demonstrators, if you demonstrate against the rally of a Presidential candidate you will be treated much like Viet Nam-era demonstrators, with agents provocateurs and police brutality and falsified arrests. However demonstrations under other circumstances tend to be ignored more than they are suppressed. And there is nothing now comparable to the Ludlow Massacre or the Battle Matawan (which of course most Americans have never heard of).
And as to minorities, on the one hand we have nothing like the systematic violence of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. However Muslims and persons of Middle-Eastern descent live in legitimate fear of random acts of oppression.
And as to revolutionaries, on the one hand there has never been such a sustained campaign of entrapment and agents provocateur as what we now see the FBI deploying against (often foolish and impressionable) young Muslim males. On the other hand, actual courtroom trials are far more fair than that wielded against the randomly selected scapegoats for the Haymarket bombing.
And as for the mentally ill, we no longer give them a life sentence in a ghastly nuthouse. However we do regularly send them to jail for shorter terms on criminal charges.
Another historic criterion for freedom would be the extent, power, and sophistication of the apparatus of repression the government holds in reserve for unsettled times. By that criterion, I think we are at by far the worst point in American history.
1. The NSA has implemented a historically unprecedented and far-reaching system for monitoring and recording all forms of communication. Moreover, that system is now widely accepted by a plurality of Americans as quasi-legitimate and de facto legal, though it remains under challenge from an active minority. More importantly, the movement towards encrypting all communication offers the possibility of relief.
2. The CIA has demonstrated that it can use illegal torture against designated illegal enemy combatants and then enjoy complete impunity after this fact is revealed.
3. The military has demonstrated that it can designate an individual as an illegal enemy combatant based on secret evidence using hazy criteria, and lock them up indefinitely under inhumane conditions, and (at least thus far) withstand all court challenges.
4. The military has also demonstrated it can designate an American citizen as an illegal combatant and assassinate him on foreign soil with impunity.
5. Congress and the President have demonstrated their willingness to declare a de facto state of war without end (i.e the war against terror) and without any well-define enemy and without any clear objectives.
6. The country as a whole has demonstrated over and over again its willingness to relax Constitutional standards of freedom in times of war.
7. For the first time in history, we now have a sustained system for criminalizing and persecuting whistleblowers (while allowing business as usual for powerful bureaucrats who make politically selective leaks of classified information).
8. The FBI has cast off many of its post-COINTELPRO reforms.
9. The organized groups that oppose these trends are, I think, in some respects at their lowest ebb (relative to the threat) in American history. On the one hand, the ACLU is probably at its historic peak in terms of size, money, sophistication, and influence. However the ACLU is an elite organization, not really a mass membership organization. Its power is limited by the fact there are no mass movements for it to back. Labor is at post-1920s low point in terms of membership or identification, and even worse off in terms of militancy. The once-militant NAACP is decaying.
10. News media are at their lowest point in American history with respect to diversity and competition, and at their highest point with respect to oligopolization. Therefore they are ill-situated to oppose tyrannical uses of power by the new national security state.