This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Like it or not


It's French Trade Month in Carrboro, North Carolina. The designation, enacted unanimously by the town's aldermen, sounds vaguely obscene; May, one fears, will be devoted to "rough kissing." Leave that aside. It's no surprise that Carrboro would protest the recent public habit of decrying all things French: The small town has spent decades fending off the imperial encroachments of neighboring Chapel Hill, and thus presumably feels some solidarity with those who fear an American Imperium.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that Arcata, California, which is about the same size as Carrboro, now "outlaws voluntary compliance with the Patriot Act." It's not immediately obvious what this means; on closer examination, it seems the ordinance requires the city police to "continue to preserve and uphold residents' freedom of speech, assembly, association, and privacy, the right to counsel and due process in judicial proceedings, and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, even if requested to do otherwise and infringe upon such rights by federal or state law enforcement agencies acting under new powers created by the USA PATRIOT ACT or by Executive Order." Strictly speaking, then, the legislation does nothing: The Constitution is the highest law in the land, and if the police are asked to do something unconstitutional, even by federal authorities, they have a legal obligation to refuse. As a practical matter, though, it's nice to know that they plan to do just that. Nice if you're an Arcatan, anyway.

The Post also reports that while Arcata is the only town to actually ban compliance with unconstitutional federal laws, many others—including Carrboro—have passed measures that simply ask local officials to refuse any federal requests that violate citizens' civil liberties. In still other towns, Bill of Rights Defense Committees are calling on their governments to do the same.

War may be the health of the centralized state, but with U.S. troops settling in for their occupation of Iraq and with domestic lawmakers chewing away at long-established legal protections, American localism seems to be alive and well, or at least kicking. And not just on the dissident front. Carrboro's gesture of friendship to the French, after all, exists mostly because so many private citizens (and yes, sometimes government officials) have been taking out their grudges against French foreign policy on French fries and french toast. (Sorry: freedom fries and freedom toast.) Others are boycotting entertainers who have spoken out against the war and/or the president. And then, of course, there's the Internet.

The Internet! Where dissidents cry wolf so frequently that the real threats to our liberties get dismissed; where war supporters move so easily from fact-checking the wolf-criers to a more general program of heresy-hunting; where every cause has a champion and every theory an exponent. The boycotters organize here, and so do the Bill of Rights Defense Committees.

The good news: Rambunctious, democratic debate is alive and well in 21st-century America. The bad news: This is what rambunctious, democratic debate looks like. You probably thought it was something thoughtful and elegant—bewigged gentlemen speaking rationally and with mutual respect, never straying from the most important issues. Instead, it's scattershot rallies and deranged boycotts and municipal resolutions that pose more legal questions than they answer. And it's still better than all the alternatives.