John Ashcroft keeps surprising us. Just when you think that, surely, this hyperactive liberty-whacker will finally bottom out in terms of the depths to which he's willing to submerge our Constitutional rights ... he plunges us into even lower levels of Constitutional hell.
The latest stimulating news from our autocratic attorney general is that he wants to "relax" restrictions that presently prohibit the FBI from spying on America's church and political groups. Ashcroft is out to revive "Cointelpro," the notorious FBI domestic surveillance program that the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover established during his reign of error. It was Cointelpro spooks that secretly spied on, infiltrated, and tried to undermine such legitimate, peaceful dissidents in our country as Martin Luther King Jr., Students for a Democratic Society, and the anti-war movement. This was more than impolite, it was un-American, for Cointelpro agents were directed to "disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" groups that the Powers That Be simply didn't like.
Now, your attorney general wants to bring this dark force into your church or political discussion group. Oh, cries Ashcroft, I'm not after good people, only the bad-news ones, and I merely need to "modify" our civil-liberty protection in order to get those terrible terrorists. But Cointelpro never was restricted to terrorists or violent groups. And our history -- from the Alien and Sedition Laws to the vicious McCarthy period -- shows how easy it is for ambitious authorities to define the most benign group or person as an "enemy of the state."
Remember: Ashcroft has already blurted out that anyone who even criticizes his autocratic policies are engaged in acts that "aid terrorists."
Ashcroft's Cointelpro would not merely target terrorists, but also liberty-loving dissidents.
Meet James Howard of Brooklyn, New York: 42, diabetic, blind in one eye, takes care of his disabled wife and their kids, a 10th-grade dropout, relegated to poverty jobs, a hard worker.
Mr. Howard has been an exemplar of the welfare-to-work programs that the miserly mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, had imposed to crack down on "welfare cheats." But James Howard was no cheat -- as The New York Times reports, he's a guy doing the best he can with what he has, and public assistance was designed to help struggling families like his make ends meet.
Nonetheless, with public assistance ending, Howard found himself thrust into Giuliani's highly ballyhooed "Work Experience Program," which promised to put him in a good, full-time job -- if he performed well in a training period to become a subway cleaner.
"Make an Effort, Not an Excuse," barked one of the little homilies scattered on signs around the walls of the WEP office where he had to check in. Howard's effort was A+. He had almost perfect attendance, cleaning the Coney Island Subway terminal, where his tasks included disposing of bodily wastes from the subway cars and scouring an employee bathroom that, as a trainee, he was not allowed to use. He was on the job in the harsh winter, wearing two coats and three pairs of socks. He ate his brown-bag lunch in a utility closet filled with the acrid aroma of cleaning fluids.
The program promised that he would be hired after three months, but they kept Howard as a low-paid trainee for 18 months ... then they dumped him. "Winners Make the Grade, Whiners Make Excuses," barked another sign at the WEP office. Howard made the grade, but it was Giuliani's WEP making excuses, claiming that the subway system had imposed a hiring freeze and -- oh, by the way -- your welfare benefits have also expired.
James Howard played by Giuliani's rules, but Rudy's gone now and doesn't give a damn. "I don't know what's going to happen," Howard said when he was dumped just before Christmas. "I don't want to lose my home."
Today, Spaceship Hightower invites you to visit ProductWorld, where you can see the most amazing things ... assuming you have a powerful magnifying glass and a calculator. This is the world of convoluted consumerism, where customers will get lost unless they read all of the teeny-tiny print. Our escort is Consumer Reports magazine, which always helps you track the important small stuff.
Our first stop is at the trusted old brand name, Kleenex, a product of the Kimberly-Clark corporation. Only, this is the "new" Kleenex, not the old. The old box said "Family Size -- still 250 Tissues!" The new box says "Family Size." Period. Yes, indeed, check the small print and you'll find an unadvertised notice that the new family size shorts you 20 tissues, while charging the same as for the old box. A corporate spokeswoman was blunt about the switch: "It's an alternative form of a price increase," she explained. Oh. Thank you.
Or check out the coupon distributed by the fast-food chain, Panda Express. It offers $2 off on a family meal as part of its "Festival of Shrimp" promotion. "Luckily, we've got plenty of shrimp," the coupon exults, bragging about the "tempting shrimp creations our chefs are wokking up." Sounds yummy ... until you squint at the little notice at the bottom of the $2 off coupon that tells you: "Excludes Shrimp."
Never go shopping without your magnifying glass ... and your skeptical attitude.
Jim Hightower's latest book, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is available in a fully revised and updated paperback edition.
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