Freedom of Speech, Unless You Disagree?

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Thus begins perhaps the most brilliant governing document ever written: the United States Constitution. For all of the strife and controversy surrounding this nation, the U.S. Constitution stands as a bright beacon for democracy. It is a living, dynamic document that directs the government of this country.

One of the brilliancies of the U.S. Constitution is its declared ability to be amended, and the first ten amendments constitute the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The United States Supreme Court, by the authority granted to it by the U.S. Constitution, long ago ruled that freedom of speech was not just about the verbally spoken word, but also included all forms of expression, such as the written word, art, dance, song, displays, etc. And yes, Virginia, that includes Tee-shirts.

When the president of the US is sworn in every 4 years, he/she swears an oath to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States. In fact, it is fair to state that this is the president’s first duty of office, to ensure that the Constitution, with all its amendments, and all the Supreme Court interpretations, is complied with. After all, if the Constitution is not complied with by the top leader of the country, what value does it have?

So what does it say that the president of the United States, George W Bush, makes sure through his White House “advance officials”, that no dissenting citizen gets to express himself/herself during publicly viewed and press-attended speaking engagements of the president?

On July 4, 2004 (Independence day celebrating the U.S. Declaration of Independence signed in 1776), W. Bush gave a speech in Charleston, West Virginia, stating in his speech, “…”On this Fourth of July, we confirm our love of freedom, the freedom for people to speak their minds. … Free thought, free expression, that’s what we believe,”

W. Bush’s words ring a bit hollow, when you consider that a couple showed up wearing tee-shirts that were unflattering to the president. Jeffery and Nicole Rank wore the shirts, both of which were adorned in the front with the word “Bush” in a circle with a slash through it; the back of Jeffery’s shirt had the words “Regime Change Begins at home” and the back of Nicole’s shirt said “Love America, Hate Bush”.

Free Expression, right? HMmmm. Maybe not, if your message disagrees with the top leader of the country. The Bush “advance officials”, working with the local police, told the Ranks to either take off the shirts, turn them inside out, or leave. The Ranks insisted upon their First Amendment Rights to freely express themselves (on public property, no less), and were subsequently handcuffed, arrested and charged with trespass. That’s right, folks. Trespass! On public property during a presidential speech, on Independence day…in the United States!

It boggles the mind. But wait! There’s more!

The charges were later dropped. However, the White House “advance officials were later sued by the Ranks for violation of their First Amendment Rights, and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union, and thank the stars for them!) stepped in to assist the ranks. And a week or so ago, the U.S. Government settled the case for $80,000 (US).

That’s $80,000 of your and my taxpayer dollars, folks.

As badly as this single case reflects the US and spotlights the hypocrisy of the Bush administration in its flagrant disregard for the most important document of democracy in history whenever the Constitution gets in the way of its agenda, it is not an isolated case.

There are many documented cases of Constitutional abuses by the Bush administration. Some are similar to this one, involving attempts at subverting the right of individuals and organizations to freely express themselves in public, press-covered venues. Others are more insidious: the suspension of basic constitutional and federal rights, such as suspension of habeas corpus (either charge me or release me), the right to a speedy trial, protection from warrant-less surveillance…the list goes on and on.

But, somehow, when the attack is against the most basic of rights, i.e., the right of a peaceful U.S. citizen to publicly disagree with Bush during a public Independence Day speech on public property where the president is supposedly celebrating freedom of expression in his public, press-covered speech, it really crosses over into the arena of utter dictatorial arrogance.

As Sinclair Lewis, the American novelist (1885-1951) wrote, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

Are You Getting Your Taxes-worth?

As you have noticed, I and a new blog article were absent for a couple of weeks. Having bought a house in June in Port Orange, Florida, which is a suburb of Daytona Beach, a return trip in August served multiple purposes, including the beginning of a move from Rhode Island that will be completed in a couple of months.

“It’s always good to go away, and it’s always good to come back home to your own bed.” My late mother used to say that, and she was absolutely right about it. Except in this case, as you will find as you read on.

There’s a reason for this move, which involves spending the majority of each year in Florida, with the remaining months in Rhode Island. Besides escaping the cold weather so that I can ride my Harley all year long, it has mostly to do with the excessive taxes in Rhode Island, and not receiving adequate services for the taxes one is forced to pay. These taxes, by the way, are far in excess of what one pays in Florida.

As a result, I became a Florida resident during my trip. I got a Florida drivers license and I registered my motorcycle, my car, and my motorcycle trailer there. These actions necessitated a trip to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles and the Volusia County main registry office.

In many states of the US, and particularly the tiny, overly-tax-burdened state of Rhode Island, a trip to the “registry” as these offices are commonly called, is considered a form of government-endorsed torture. One expects long lines of sweaty people, long waits for service (an hour or more), surly registry employees who are grossly understaffed and who must deal with an endless number of frustrated, tired customers all day long, utterly stupid bureaucratic requirements, incomprehensible forms to be filed out, and missing heretofore unknown document and/or certification requirements that require yet another trip to the registry for another round of torture.

Not so in Florida, folks. And imagine my surprise as I proceeded to exchange my Rhode Island drivers license for a Florida license in six minutes (including the 45 second wait for service), and then registered three vehicle titles and registrations in less than fifteen minutes after a one-minute wait for service. And interestingly, as my applications for title and registration were being processed, the friendly information clerk at the office entrance called out several times to a half-dozen very pleasant processing employees, “no customers!”, as the waiting chairs were emptied as each customer was served in rapid succession.

It was an amazingly positive event for someone whose experience over the past thirty-odd years has been with the registry in Rhode Island. There is no one I have ever even heard of in Rhode Island that felt anything but disdain and avoidance behavior pangs about a trip to the registry. Stories abound about having to take the day out of work, as do statements about the need to take along a book to read and perhaps a box lunch.

It is true that in recent years, the Rhode Island registry has installed number ticket dispensers and benches in their registry offices to relieve the need to stand in line. But you still wait and wait, wondering why there are only two registry employees serving customers when there are nine employee service stations, but seven of them are vacant. And a hundred customers waiting for service.

In Florida, their first advantage is an easy-to-navigate website that tells you exactly what you need, has a page with all the forms for filing out online, and then downloading the completed forms, the identification document requirements, and the location of the registry offices in your area. And for a license, you can make an appointment online, complete with a time and date and confirmation number and know that you will be served immediately at the license office.

In Rhode Island, there is a similar website but I found it harder to navigate. I also found the fees were higher (what a shock), the forms are more complicated and often require multiple copies. Also, except for renewing your RI registration (once you actually obtain it), you can’t do anything by mail; you must be personally present at the registry to transact business. In Florida, you can do almost everything by mail

And finally, forget about making an appointment for a certain time in Rhode Island.

I know that there are many people reading this blog that do not live in either Florida or RI, and in fact many that don’t even live in the US. But this article is really not about those two states. It is really about government working for the people or not working for the people. Writing about the registry is an obvious choice, but there are many, many other facets of government to which this concept applies.

For instance, look at the US Income Tax Code (if you can stand it). It has been said that there is no other document on Planet Earth as complicated, difficult to understand or more user-unfriendly than this universally hated tax code.

Rhode Island residents are among the most tax-burdened in the US. If they’re paying so much, shouldn’t they be getting better service than having to endure torture for hours at the state registry offices?

Are other states as bad? Other countries? If you have to pay taxes for services, shouldn’t you be receiving the services you paid for?

It couldn’t get much worse.

Bush’s Vietnam

I like to think that our leaders have at least a cursory understanding of human history. I believe that if they do, they will learn from the past and not repeat its mistakes. After all, one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result.

Yet, for those of us who came of age during the Vietnam era, it’s like déjà vu all over again. Of course, the Dubya-licking neo-cons will argue that the war in Iraq is a completely different conflict that has absolutely no similarity to Vietnam. They’ll argue that Saddam had WMDs, was harboring Al Qaida, and we should fight them over there or we’ll be fighting them over here.

Well, let’s do a one-on one comparison and see just how similar or non-similar these two conflicts are. And just to get it started, we use the word “conflict” because Congress never passed an act declaring war against Iraq, as it did in World War II. It also never declared war against North Vietnam, either. And that’s just for starters.

In Vietnam, the initial stated mission of American troops was as “advisers” to the South Vietnamese army. We were to “train” the South Vietnamese army to fight its own battles against the insurgents and provide security for its own nation. But after several years of failing to meet that goal, and as the insurgency (Viet con, or VC, aided by North Vietnam, and later regular North Vietnamese troops aided by China) got bolder and stronger, we ‘surged” our troops to provide security for the corrupt and ineffective South Vietnamese government to stabilize and allow time to take over the fighting and security of their own country. The continued excuse given to the American people was that if we didn’t fight the communists over there, we would be fighting them over here.

General William Westmoreland would go on TV at regular intervals to declare that “we are winning” in Vietnam, regardless of cost.

A popular president (LBJ, post the Kennedy assassination) who had won re-election became increasingly unpopular because of the “war with no end”, and his stubborn commitment to “victory” in Vietnam.

In Iraq, we invaded ostensively to disarm Saddam of his WMDs (never found), and set up a democracy which could govern itself. We were to “train” the Iraqi army to fight its own battles against the insurgents and provide security for its own nation. But after several years of failing to meet that goal, and as the insurgency (Sunnis, joined by foreign fighters, and later Shiites, and aid from Iran) got bolder and stronger, we ‘surged” our troops to provide security for the corrupt and ineffective Iraqi government to stabilize and allow time to take over the fighting and security of their own country. The continued excuse given to the American people was that if we didn’t fight the Islamist fundamentalists over there, we would be fighting them over here.

Military commanders would go on TV at regular intervals to declare that “we are winning” in Iraq.

A popular president (GWB, post 9-11) who had won re-election became increasingly unpopular because of the “war with no end”, and his stubborn commitment to victory in Iraq, regardless of cost.

American support for both conflicts started strong, but waned as Americans saw that the promises of early accomplishment and completion were empty, American death toll mounted and the puppet governments we were supporting would fold like cheap suits if it weren’t for the tremendous resources the US was pouring into these conflicts, and needless deaths of thousands of American G.I.s.

There are many other similarities, e.g. atrocities, torture, contractors getting rich, government abuses, US agencies spying on Americans, etc. and this blog would be a mile long if I listed each one. For instance, who can forget Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the “Pentagon Papers”, showing that Americans were lied to by their government about the war in Vietnam, which resulted in his abuse by the Nixon administration? Or was it Joe Wilson’s Op-ed piece in the New York Times describing how Americans were lied to by their government about the war in Iraq, which resulted in his abuse by the Bush Administration?

Sorry about that. It’s hard to keep them apart. :)

The bottom line, of course, is at the top of this blog: one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result.

So it truly begs the question: What does this say about the Bush administration and its supporters??

Think about that.