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Looking Backward

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I finished reading Wendy Kaminer’s Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU a couple of days ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it ever since.

Kaminer is one of my absolutely favorite writers, the kind of writers whose books I look out for and always read. 

I am not sure how I missed this one when it came out, but I did.  I had heard–because hers is a name I watch for–that she had left the national board of the ACLU some time ago, and that she’d done so because she felt the ACLU was no longer the ACLU, that it was no longer an organization committed to civil liberties.

I also knew that one of her major complaints about the modern ACLU was the fact that it acquiesced in campus speech codes and “hate crimes” legislation.

In other words, if I had known this book existed, I’d have had it in house on publication day.

For those of you who have never read Kaminer, she’s the kind of liberal who makes you remember that there were, once, real liberals.  In other words, she’s not a “progressive,” but a tireless defender of individual rights.

She’s also one of the world’s most trenchant critics of the therapeutic culture.  I’ve recommended I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional here before, but I’ll do it again, in case you didn’t hear me. Things have gotten much worse since she wrote it, but they haven’t really changed.

I’m not sure whether to recommend this book or not. 

It’s a very good book, and I’m very glad I read it. 

But along with being a painstaking account of what happened at the ACLU to make her tenure there no longer feasible, it’s a kind of mourning. 

It’s an anguished outcry at the death of something that was very important to Wendy Kaminer, and probably to a lot of other people, including me.  It’s just that I noticed the death sometime earlier, so that by the time Wendy Kaminer left the ACLU, I had long been calling myself something other than liberal.

The loss, then, is not just that of this once venerable institution, but of an entire political idea, which no more exists in today’s world than a pterodactyl.

Except, of course, that it does.  In Wendy Kaminer.  In Theodore Dalrymple.  In me.  In dozens of other people who have been cut adrift in the politics of modern America with no party to represent us and no idea what we should even call ourselves.

I’ve settled on “libertarian,” but, given the antics of our present Libertarian Party, that isn’t a viable option for everybody.

In case you’re wondering–no, I’m not in favor of privatising the roads, eliminating all government help for the destitute, or  abolishing the public schools.

Of course, if you know anything about actual libertarianism, you’d already know that I wouldn’t be in favor of any of those things. 

Another subject for another time…

When I tried to explain all this to a friend of mine, he said that the ACLU was never the kind of institution Kaminer and I thought it was, because it never really defended anything but the rights of liberals.  It did not, for instance, go after “government backed unions,” meaning (I think) closed shops.

Thinking this over, I’ve decided that it is not entirely a legitimate criticism, on two counts.

The first is that there are legitimate disagreements over what is and is not the individual liberties side of an argument.  Your decision as to whether individual rights are being served or not by any policy will depend on what you think is going on in the real world.

If you think workers genuinely choose not to join unions, then you’re going to be in favor of “right to work” laws.  If you think that workers are coerced into claiming they want a union out of fear of reprisals from management, you’re going to be in favor of closed shops.

And yes, from where I sit, it seems glaringly obvious that right to work is the way to go–but that has to do with my personal experience, and I may be right or wrong.

The other reason I think this isn’t a legitimate criticism of the ACLU, however, is that the record belies it.

Anybody looking back over the history of the organization will see that it repeatedly–at least, up until its present administration–defended very unpopular and very un-leftist people and organizations at great cost to itself both financially and in terms of membership.

The Skokie case alone nearly bankrupted the organization and sent hundreds of people fleeing its membership rolls.  It went to bat for the conservative (and deliberately inflamatory) Dartmouth Review, a magazine whose staff eventually became the bright lights of a new generation of conservative leaders.

Those are two cases known to me, but there are dozens more, and the record is clear that the organization took those cases in spite of the fact that it knew it would get hurt. 

These days, of course, the charge of picking and choosing a few high profile cases so that you get to claim to be “nonpartisan” would be completely justified. Anthony Romero’s ACLU is just another partisan political player in a partisan political world.

What it also seems to be is yet another institution that has started to be run for its own agrandizement rather than for advancing what are supports to be its ideals.

In other words, cases were taken–or not–based on calculations as to whether taking them would provide lots of publicity of a kind that would increase both memberships and donations.

One of the most telling aspects of this situation is the fact that Romero knews–as did his board, when they eventually learned about what was going on–that this kind of behavior and these sorts of policies would bring a lot of very bad publicity.

Romero understood the problem, because he tried so hard to hide a lot of these decisions and policies from the board.

The board understood what was going on, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to cover it over, lying about it, and trying to mischaracterize the content of various decisions.

And some of those decisions were positively bizarre.  One had to do with Romero’s secretly agreeing to check ACLU hires against terrorist watch lists, right at the time that the ACLU was fighting the watch lists in the courts.  Another had to do with trying to take credit for action on behalf of Guantonamo detainees that had actually been taken by a different organization.

A lot of this was less shocking than just sort of sordid and embarrassing–like Romero’s failure to tell the people who hired him that he had worked on establish the Ford Foundation’s gag rules for grant recipients, and then failing to tell them that he’d signed the ACLU on to those rules so they would get the grant money.

For me, the most painful part of the book was Chapter Eight, where Kaminer lists all the ways in which the ACLU has ceased to be a “civil liberties” organization and become a “social justice” one–and it’s very obvious she’s not in favor of the social justice thing.

In that chapter, we get everything from campus speech codes to sexual harrassment policies to a glancing look at at least some forms of affirmative action.

I could have written most of her complaints myself–and have, on and off, on this blog.

Wendy Kaminer is about my age.  This is a requiem for a world that died by the time we were both in (Seven Sisters) college, a world that we both aspired to and longed for that was gone before we had a chance to enter it.

Wendy Kaminer still calls herself a liberal, as far as I know, and she may actually be one–a liberal, not a progressive.  I call myself a libertarian, but it all comes down to the same thing.


Written by janeh

September 29th, 2013 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Looking Backward'

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  1. Closed shops are a tad obvious. When you say “you can only work here if we let you join us–and if we let you join us, we’ll take some of your money–we decide how much–and spend it any way we please” you’re well into power only a government should have, and possibly more power than a government should have.

    Different assumptions about the nature of reality are what make Nazis, Communists and all manner of conspiracy theorists possible, of course–but you can’t reconcile a closed shop or a union shop with a commitment to individual rights.

    I think DARTMOUTH was a miscalculation on someone’s part. It’s hard to find another case where they backed serious conservatives and not nutcases. And as you say, they’re certainly not going to do it again.

    But before we spend a lot of time mourning the lost world of liberalism, let’s remember who killed it. Telepathic police–“we know what you were thinking when you hired those people, and we disapprove”–was Hubert Humphrey and LBJ. All the racial preferences passed with liberal votes. So did all the vast bureaucracies such as the EPA which get to make up their own rules–and the exceptions to those rules–as they go along. This entire generation of campus speech codes went into effect after the campuses had been purged of conservative teachers and administrators.
    All this and much more was the work of “liberals” proudly so-called with scarcely a dissenting voice. They didn’t take up calling themselves “progressives” until after Dukakis went down in flames and they realized they’d made the very word toxic. But there was no change in policy: as much government as they could get away with, all administered from Washington by the right sort of people–who make a LOT of money at it, I might add. A commitment to freedom is so contrary to what liberalism has meant over the past 60 years, I can’t imagine why anyone would use the word for that. You’d have to begin by going against everything the liberals of that “world that we both aspired to and longed for” stood for.(I will happily concede the word means something different in Britain. So does “football.”)

    Peddle the bedtime stories about the betrayal of liberalism to those of us who weren’t there watching liberals dig the hole the nation is currently in. This is liberalism, nor are we out of it.


    29 Sep 13 at 12:52 pm

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