Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Twisted Knickers

Can’t we all just get along, at least on one issue?

One area where progressives, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, etc. can often find common ground is privacy rights. Since the founding of the Republic, Americans of all political stripes have had a healthy skepticism of allowing the government unfettered access to our lives.

Yet in
a recent editorial, Mark Hyman implies that such fears are trivial. In a discussion about the use of an unmanned drone by Maryland law enforcement to spy on a gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts, Hyman begins by noting that there are fewer and fewer places in society where we aren’t under they watchful eye of the authorities. This would seem to suggest Hyman is about to launch into an attack on the erosion of civil rights and the growth of big government’s ability to monitor us wherever we are.

But apparently Hyman’s antipathy for the ACLU (and those whom it defends) got in the way of any deeper musings on the subject, because as soon as he describes the use of the “CyberBUG” unmanned drone by law enforcement, he says that its use has the ACLU’s “knickers . . . all tied up in a knot.”

Finishing the commentary with a call for viewer responses on the issue, Hyman frames the question in the following way:

Is the use of UAVs to monitor situations an intrusion on civil rights as argued
by the ACLU? Or is the device a practical, low-cost method to ensuring public

You don’t need a degree in linguistics to see how loaded this question is. One point of view is one that is “argued by the ACLU” (the same group Hyman trivialized earlier in the editorial), while the other is merely asserted by Hyman himself, using warm fuzzy language (“practical, low-cost method to ensuring [sic] public safety”).

It will be interesting to see the results of this little experiment in push-polling. Traditionally, conservatives have as many issues with “Big Brother” issues as liberals/progressives (although such concerns often manifest themselves a bit differently).

The larger issue, however, is Hyman’s propagandizing about the ACLU. Hyman often makes claims about the ACLU that are simply false, such as asserting that:
“Not unlike the Communist Chinese, the ACLU abhors individualreligious freedom and it supports only those civil liberties that fit its narrow political agenda.”
As we pointed out, the ACLU has gone to the mat for the unfettered practice of religious freedom for any number of groups and individuals. We also noted that two individuals Hyman described in one of his commentaries as victims of political correctness run amok on college campuses are in fact being defended by the ACLU. And if there’s one case that everyone knows about concerning the ACLU’s stance on individual rights, it’s the organization’s stand in favor of allowing neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Is Hyman suggesting that national socialism is part of the ACLU’s “narrow political agenda”?

So either Hyman is unaware of these cases, or he’s being disingenuous. While it’s difficult to overestimate Hyman’s ignorance on any issue, the latter explanation is the more plausible in this case.

If simply taken at face value, there’s much any conservative with an average amount of libertarianism thrown into the mix would have in common with the ACLU’s basic stance on individual liberties and rights. The issue, however, is that for the Radical Right, the ACLU has long served as a stand-in for those it defends, most of whom are people whose views don’t reflect the views of the powers-that-be (hence the need for their rights to be vigorously defended).

To see how this works, one need only think back to the 1988 presidential election when Republicans conflated those who burn the flag with the ACLU, and the ACLU in turn with Michael Dukakis. By connecting the views of the individuals or groups the ACLU defends (at least when they are views objectionable to the majority of Americans) to the group itself, and then the group to any Democrat they target (or to progressivism in general), the Radical Right has a convenient way to engage in demagoguery.

But there’s a darker corollary to this. Attacking the ACLU becomes a way of carrying out stealth warfare on those the ACLU represents, particularly people who are socially, politically, and/or economically vulnerable to begin with. It might be unseemly to attack those who practice a religion other than Christianity directly, but by attacking a group that is known for standing up for minority religious rights, the end is the same. It might be distasteful to some to engage in racist rhetoric about immigrants (although many on the Right, including Hyman, seem to have no problems doing so), but if you attack the ACLU, a group known for fighting for the rights of immigrants, the end is the same. It might be politically unadvisable to directly attack American workers, but by going after an organization that makes a point of defending worker’s rights, the end is the same. Ultimately, it’s not the ACLU itself whom the Radical Right hates; it’s those the group represents.

As long as the ACLU defends such groups (and as long as the surveillance drones are flying over gatherings of groups seen as “out of the mainstream”), Hyman and his ilk will show little care for civil rights.

But one wonders what might happen if the authorities started installing surveillance devices to monitor the gatherings of corporate executives. After all, who is ultimately more dangerous: a guy on a Harley or Ken Lay? What if CyberBUGs and other technology were suddenly turned loose on a certain media conglomeration’s headquarters outside Baltimore, Maryland? I wonder whose knickers would be tied in a knot then . . .

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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