It’s the classic old school East Bay greeting: “How ‘bout them A’s?!” Heard at the Oakland Symphony concert on Friday night, a not-so-surprising new variant: “How ‘bout that budget?!” And I knew exactly what he meant: not the disgraceful California model, but the Obama presentation that was all over the front page of the New York Times on Friday. It was a revelation to those of us who have suffered for the last 25 years through the politics of low expectations.
My friend is an old-time liberal who has always believed that government can do many things right, and should be allowed to do so. He ended up starting a small high-tech business, I suspect partly because public service opportunities have been so limited during both of our adult lives, and much to his surprise it’s been a success. He’s been a faithful contributor to political and cultural causes, but he’s been disappointed in almost everything that came after Johnson’s War on Poverty.
The goals, tone and language of the Obama budget presentation resonated for people like us like the sound of the last trumpet announcing the Resurrection of the Dead in Handel’s Messiah. The scathing reference to “an era of profound irresponsibility that engulfed both private and public institutions from some of our largest companies’ executive suites to the seats of power in Washington, D.C.” was music to our ears.
And then on Monday another new day dawned. Attorney General Eric Holder released nine Bush Justice Department memos written shortly after 9/11 which outlined arguments for drastic restrictions on Americans’ civil liberties. Just a sample of the horrors therein, from Devlin Barrett and Matt Apuzzo’s story for the Associated Press:
“Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure, for instance, did not apply in the United States as long as the president was combatting terrorism, the Justice Department said in an Oct. 23, 2001, memo.
“‘First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully,’ Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote, adding later: ‘The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically.’
“On Sept. 25, 2001, Yoo discussed possible changes to the laws governing wiretaps for intelligence gathering. In that memo, he said the government’s interest in keeping the nation safe following the terrorist attacks might justify warrantless searches.”
It’s terrifying to speculate on how close this country came to a genuine totalitarian coup. While President Obama has already done a few things we might not approve of, and the situation in Afghanistan, “where empires go to die,” continues to be worrisome, the vigorous actions by Holder at Justice and Leon Panetta at the CIA (revealing the agency’s destruction of key torture videos under the Bush administration) are cause for celebration by civil libertarians. It seems that Obama really does intend to clean house in Washington.
Which brings us round, circuitously, to the question of cleaning house at home. Just as our man in Washington is engaged in sweeping the devils out of the corners there, we should be getting rid of our own around here.
After a couple of years of self-described “dithering,” UC’s Economics Professor Brad DeLong, functioning as our civic conscience, has finally called on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to get rid of John Yoo, now in safe haven as a tenured faculty member at the University of California Law School. DeLong’s argument: it’s not a matter of Yoo’s academic freedom, since he’s shown that he’s happy to argue what he doesn’t actually believe in order to curry favor with a patron. In 2000, DeLong says, Yoo argued that President Clinton’s powers were “crabbed and restricted,” but then in 2001 he gave President Bush’s administration carte blanche to do anything up to and including curtailing civil liberties and torturing prisoners.
The key paragraph in DeLong’s letter to Birgeneau: “Academic freedom is a powerful and important principle. But I do not believe it provides a shield for weathervanes. I do not believe it shields those whose work is not the grueling intellectual labor of the scholar and the scientist but instead hackwork that is crafted to be convenient and pleasing to their political master of the day.”
Now that the era of profound irresponsibility seems to be over in Washington, it should be over in Berkeley as well. The law school has erected a shield around Yoo which he doesn’t deserve, and that should end.
One egregious example: Yoo took part about a year ago in a panel discussion at something called the BCLT Privacy Lecture. The handful of audience members were greeted with the boldly printed
BCLT PRIVACY LECTURE RULES:
NO Cans, Bottles or Fruit.
NO Banners or Signs.
NO Sound-Making Devices.
NO Disturbances during the Program, including NO Standing.
NO Behavior that disrupts the event or prevents the speakers from being heard or being able to continue.
In other words, plenty of protection for John Yoo’s First Amendment rights, and plenty of provision for his complete comfort as he exercised them. Also, not stated but clear to all, NO Torture, NO Search and Seizure, NO Invasion of Yoo’s cozy home in Lafayette (or somewhere else through the tunnel).
Law school dean Christopher Edley is President Obama’s old professor, and it’s time for him to show that he has as much class as the president’s appointees Holder and Panetta. Yoo is currently a visiting faculty member at a lesser academic institution in Southern California, and that’s a good place for him to stay. Edley could just drop him an e-mail suggesting that he needn’t bother to come back, and Berkeley’s long and embarrassing Yoo nightmare would be over.