Continuing his lonely quest to get liberals to pay attention to President Obama’s horrendous record on civil liberties, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald today challenges ThinkProgress’ Matt Yglesias, who excuses Obama’s actions on the grounds that the president is just following public opinion. Greenwald has the better case.

But the more I watch Obama endorse and expand the Bush administration’s claims of essentially unlimited presidential power, the more I conclude that we have essentially one hope at this point.

Civil libertarians should hope, perversely, that Obama will abuse the powers he’s claimed — and which, given Congress’ craven acceptance, appear to be a bipartisan Washington consensus. Moreover, we have to hope that he’ll abuse them broadly, against people who support him as well as those who don’t. 

In the Clinton years, a significant number of Republicans hammered what they believed (accurately in many cases) was the White House’s tendency to claim executive powers that they were certain would be abused. For a time it was the GOP that defended civil liberties — hypocritical in the extreme in many cases, as it was mostly reflexive anti-Clinton paranoia, but useful nonetheless for those of us who were glad to see someone, anyone, pushing back.

Republicans and Democrats alike seem to have concluded that Obama won’t abuse his power, at least in ways they or their major supporters will find objectionable. In the case of Republicans, it’s unclear whether they figure he’s a wimp or naive about the “real world,” but the taunting by the right-wing pols and people like Limbaugh about “the regime,” and all the other alarm-ringing, is hollow at its core. Sure, it’s demagogic fear mongering, but I don’t believe most of these people really want their gun-laden supporters to actually use their weapons; that would harm their cause. Rather, they want these folks to get organized at protests and political meetings and ultimately in voting booths. Their goal is for Obama to fail, in ways that have historically led to right-wing surges, so they can get back all three branches of government again. Actual violence by their supporters would make that much more difficult.

If the Republicans don’t really fear Obama, the Democrats, have turned cowardice into an art form, seem to figure it’s okay to pander to fear and expand presidential power because a good person is in charge at the moment — and, as many have suggested, because lots of Democrats have deeply authoritarian impulses as well. The latter may actually be the more important motivation. But the Democrats’ hypocrisy — Patrick Leahy’s beyond-craven performance as one of Obama’s chief enablers in Congress is especially shameful, given his rhetoric during the Bush years — should surprise no one at this point. They demonstrated their total spinelessness during the Bush years. Why should we have expected them to change now?

But the political right is surely licking its chops, confident that when it returns to power there will be absolutely no constraints on their pro-authority (except for the 2nd Amendment) agenda. And Obama will have given them cover. He, as much as George Bush and Dick Cheney, will have laid the groundwork for a regime that goes all the way to the edge, if not over it.

Most depressing of all, the majority of the American people would probably welcome such a government. Our preference for the illusion of safety over the recognition and acceptance of risk has only grown. We are a society too afraid of our own shadows to confront reality, I fear. Someday, perhaps as soon as the next successful terrorist attack, we’ll get what we seem to want. 

Which is why I come back to my perverse hope that Obama will abuse his powers enough to pull enough scales from enough eyes, especially in Washington, that people understand what history teaches again and again: Untrammeled executive authority only seems like the easier road — until you’re in the way of the bulldozer.

On May 14 we attended a dinner in San Francisco. There was a valet parking stand, and when we arrived the valets were fairly backed up. We got behind several other cars and waited.

A few minutes later one of the city’s parking police came up behind the line. I asked one of the valets what was up, and he said they were out of parking spaces, though one might come open again if someone left. But, he said, the city was starting to ticket cars waiting in line.

We waited a minute, hoping someone might leave, and then pulled out and found our own parking.

A few weeks later I received a notice from the city, saying we owed money for illegal parking that evening. I filled out the protest form, noting that no one had handed us any ticket or put one on our windshield, and, moreover, that we’d moved the car. To repeat: The parking cop never handed us this phantom ticket, nor did he/she put on the windshield — and we were sitting right there.

Months went by, with two more letters saying the city was looking into the situation. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we got another letter saying the city parking department had decided we did owe for illegal parking. In other words, whatever its own employee — remember, the one who never actually handed us any paper — told them was considered true. Or maybe they just figured they could get away with going ahead with this bogus ticket.

Well, they did. As the city knows from the vehicle registration, I’m living a majority of the time in Arizona and can’t possibly take the time or justify the expense of challenging this ticket. So I’m sending the $100. I’m tempted to send a pissed-off letter to the mayor, but realize what an empty exercise that would be.

Instead, for the next few months, when we’re at our Bay Area place and thinking about going out to dinner or a movie, or going shopping, we’ll head somewhere other than San Francisco. At some point we’ll figure we’ve avoided paying enough city parking and other taxes/fees, etc. (including the local version of the multiplier effect — spending causing more economic activity), to have denied the San Francisco treasury somewhere in the vicinity of the $100 its parking police docked us. I regret that this means some restaurants and stores in the city won’t be getting our business during this stretch, but they’ve chosen to be where they are.

I assume this kind of thing happens all the time. Parking tickets are a fabulous source of revenue for a city like San Francisco. I also wonder if the people who govern the city realize how annoyed they make people with such tactics. I assume they don’t care. In the long run that’s poor policy.

Even though I’m now legally a resident of Arizona, I come back to California frequently and keep in close touch in any case. So watching the state’s finances reach the catastrophic stage has been a fascinating and scary experience.

California’s government is, in a word, dysfunctional. Yes, the hapless Legislature bears much of the responsibility, and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s tenure has been a pathetic joke. They have persistently enacted laws that make the problems worse, and refuse to face up to reality. Posturing has replaced politics, and the state’s on the brink of a true financial meltdown.

But residents might consider looking in the mirror as they decide whom to blame the most. They are the ones who elect these clowns. They are the ones who have voted for fiscally irresponsible policies via the proposition system, beginning with Prop 13, which was and remains the seed that grew into the forest of fiscal destruction.

Now the state is issuing IOUs instead of actual money to its creditors, including taxpayers who were expecting refunds. If the state doesn’t default on its obligations outright I’ll be amazed.

Unbelievable. Yet predictable, and sad.

Several folks I know and admire are seeking to intervene in a settlement between the Author’s Guild and Google, a deal that has many unfortunate aspects including the way it treats orphaned works — that is, works still protected by (ridiculously long) copyright terms where the authors can’t be found, or works that may or may not actually be copyright.

In this Letter to Request Intervention in Author’s Guild v Google, Lewis Hyde, Harry Lewis and the Open Access Trust are trying to get a federal just to let the public — that’s the rest of us — have a say in how these works are treated.

They want to “represent the community of readers, scholars, and teachers who use orphaned works” — to “defend our interest in orphaned works to defend the public domain’s claim to free, fair use.”

They have my support.

I’m a signer of a letter on a new site called “An Open Transition,” where a group of folks led by Larry Lessig:

  • celebrates the incoming administration’s decision to put a Creative Commons license on its Change.Gov transition website, thereby allowing anyone to share, remix and otherwise reuse and copy the material there;
  • and asks that this philosophy be extended widely in the new administration, and around the government in general.

Politico has a short story on this here.

ABC News: Palin Fears Media Threaten Her First Amendment Rights. “If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations,” Palin told host Chris Plante, “then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”

One might hope that she has more of a clue about the rest of the Constitution than this nuttiness. One might be disappointed, too.

Picture 35The RealDVD home page features the unsurprising news that the entertainment cartel has persuades a judge to block sales of RealNetworks’ incredibly lame software that lets you — after jumping through absurd hoops — make copies of DVDs on your hard disk so you can watch them later. Apparently, Hollywood figures that this is another victory in the War on Doing Things that the Cartel Doesn’t Want You to Do with the music and movies you buy.

Had the movie studio bosses given this any nuanced thought, they would have celebrated Real’s achievement, which is mainly to make it so annoying to make these copies that consumers who try will figure it’s just not worth the trouble. Instead, Hollywood has simply taken away even that avenue, and encouraged people to look for software that does a better job.

Software like Handbrake, for example, which gives computer users an easy way to compress DVDs to play back on laptops, iPhones and other such devices.