Saturday, October 18, 2014


On the last day of our west coast vacation I read an interesting New York Times opinion piece titled “The Great Unraveling.” The op-ed’s author, columnist Roger Cohen, cited seven sign posts that, in his view, indicated the civilized world’s social order was unraveling. Each sign was preceded by the words, “It was a time of.” Each sign was powerfully evocative, like the notes of the Anvil Chorus. “It was a time of beheadings.”  “It was a time of aggression.” “It was a time of breakup.”  “It was a time of weakness.”  “A time of hatred.” “A time of fever.” Then, finally, “It was a time of disorientation.”

Cohen’s conclusion was ominous – “Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: ‘The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.’”

The poem Cohen referred to was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” In the poem, Kipling contrasted the “Gods of the Copybook Headings” (common sense/morality) with the “Gods of the Marketplace,” the man-made gods that throughout history have promised prosperity and fullness of life for everyone. In stanza after stanza we see that the “Gods of the Marketplace” always fail to deliver. Abundance comes to mean “robbing selected Peter to pay for the collective Paul.” Fullness of life starts “by loving our neighbor” and ends by “loving his wife.” When the “Gods of the Marketplace” tell us that “pigs have wings,” we believe the delusion and worship those who make such outlandish claims.

Kipling was writing about the social convulsions that followed World War I. If I hadn’t already known he’d penned the poem in 1919, I would have sworn he’d actually written it yesterday.

While I believe Cohen’s assessment was accurate and the signs cited are important, not all of them directly affect us. In fact, I believe there are signs that are even more ominous, particularly in the arena of our individual liberties.

For over a year I’ve been writing op-eds about the dangers of the surveillance state, the militarization of our police, and a federal government that is becoming increasingly despotic. The response I’ve gotten, particularly from friends, is either an amused yawn or a polite, but annoying lecture. “Phil, you just don’t understand they’re doing this for our safety and well-being.” 

In a 1788 letter to a man named Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What Jefferson meant by that was that when the people aren’t vigilant, government becomes more powerful and liberty yields to that power. He later expanded on that idea when he wrote, “This is so because those who gain positions of power tend always to extend the bounds of it. Power must always be constrained or limited.”

While the Obama administration has abused its power with its excessive use of the 1917 Espionage Act to squelch dissent, the deadly effects of unconstrained power can also be seen when any branch of government wields it. Take, for example, the actions of the judicial branch of government in the case of Dinesh D’Souza, who has been powerful and vocal critic of the Obama administration.

About a week ago, after D’Souza pleaded guilty to two violations of campaign finance law, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman sentenced him to eight months in a community confinement center. He also ordered D’Souza to pay a $30,000 fine and to undergo weekly “therapeutic counseling.”
Granted, D’Souza has been a lightning rod, but did the punishment fit the crime? Or, was it a progressive judge’s subtle way of telling D’Souza that if ever wanted to get out of the court’s clutches he would have to change his political opinions? 

What, exactly, would therapeutic counseling look like where the rubber meets the road? C.S. Lewis put it this way in his essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment:   It would mean being “taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I’ve grown wise enough to cheat them.”
It sounds to me like the kind of justice meted out in the Cambodian re-education camps of Pol Pot or the use of electric shock treatments and drugs like Thorazine to induce chemical lobotomies on political dissenters in the Soviet Union.

In the end, D’Souza accepted the sentence of “therapeutic counseling” meekly and thanked the judge. Had I been in his shoes I would have remained unrepentant and gone to jail. The judge might have been able to put my body behind bars, but my mind and conscience would have remained mine and mine alone.

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