Tag Archives: civil liberties

The Next Generation

Amidst the gloom and doom that is today’s political environment, there are rays of hope.

I often tell people that I would turn the country over to my students in a heartbeat. They are inclusive, community-oriented and passionate about fairness and civic equality. (Granted, they have enrolled in a School of Public and Environmental Affairs, so they are arguably a self-selected group.)

In my graduate law and policy class, I give a take-home final. (This is an effort to make up for a difficult in-class midterm, a demanding group project and a 20-page research paper.) The final consists of three questions; students are to choose one of the three and write an essay addressing it.

Unlike that midterm, there are no right or wrong answers. I’m looking for thoughtful responses–answers that tell me that they have considered the strengths and weaknesses of American governance and have formed defensible policy positions.

Two of the questions on this year’s final elicited particularly interesting responses. Here’s one of them:

It is 2020, and you have been elected President of the United States. You are following an administration that has made significant—even monumental—changes to American public policies. Which of those changes would you accept and follow? Which would you change? (I am not looking for exhaustive lists; choose one or two areas to discuss and justify your decision to accept or reject the current administration’s approach.) For each policy you would retain or reverse, explain why it is or is not supportive of the common good and/or consistent with America’s Constitutional values.

The students who chose this question were uniformly critical of the current administration, and very specific in their critiques. They all faulted Trump on environmental policy. Several pointed out that the “Muslim ban” violated the First Amendment. Economic policy and the tax “reform” bill came in for considerable scorn, as did efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act and failures to enact meaningful gun control or improve immigration policy.

I was particularly struck by essays from students addressing this question:

Earth has been destroyed in World War III. You and a few thousand others—representing a cross-section of Earth’s races, cultures and religions—are the only survivors. You have escaped to an earthlike planet and are preparing to establish a new society. You want to avoid the errors of the Earth governments that preceded you. What institutional choices do you make and why? Your essay should address:The type/structure of government you would create; the powers it will have; the limits on its powers, and how those limits will be enforced; how government officials will be chosen and policies enacted;the social and political values you intend to privilege, and the reasons for your choices.

When I’ve included a similar question in the past, most students have dutifully constructed a government patterned after that of the U.S. This year, there were more creative efforts, some borrowing from European and Canadian models, others proposing “from scratch” governance concepts. Three or four proposed to outlaw political parties, and all of them suggested mechanisms intended to prevent gridlock. A couple included stringent qualifications for holding public office.

All the responses included universal healthcare and other elements of a robust social safety net–including, in one case, a Universal Basic Income. All of them included mechanisms meant to eliminate or vastly reduce the role of money in politics. All of them provided for a rigorous civic education. All of them emphasized and protected the right to vote  (some made Election Day  a holiday, some allowed vote-by-mail and a couple made voting mandatory. One made vote suppression a felony.) All had laws protecting civil liberties and the environment.

All of them described legal systems protective of civic equality, and most suggested policies promoting respect for diversity.

The proposals weren’t uniformly practical, and there wasn’t a lot of space for details in any event, but virtually all of them showed that the writers had genuinely grappled with the question and considered the essential elements of a just society.

Needless to say, all of them came across as more thoughtful and informed than Donald Trump and his swamp.

If this country manages to survive the current administration, we’ll be in good hands.

 

 

Humans: Clever, But Not Wise….

The election of Donald Trump (aka “Agent Orange”) is only one of many, many signs that we humans aren’t as smart as we think we are.

Consider our ability to invent technologies we then prove unable to use wisely.

Actually, being destroyed or enslaved by the machines we’ve created is a favorite theme of science fiction. Robots who turn on their makers, unanticipated consequences of laboratory experiments, the dehumanizing substitution of human-machine interaction for human contact–all are familiar scenarios of “futuristic” fantasy.

Being overwhelmed by our own inventions, however, is neither “futuristic” nor “fantastic.” Anyone who doesn’t believe that human society is being inexorably changed by social media and the Internet hasn’t been paying attention.

The Guardian recently ran a chilling column about those changes, and about our tendency to see new threats and challenges in terms of the past, rather than as harbingers of our future.

Both sides of the political divide seem to be awakening to the possibility that letting the tech industry do whatever it wants hasn’t produced the best of all possible worlds. “I have found a flaw,” Alan Greenspan famously said in 2008 of his free-market worldview, as the global financial system imploded. A similar discovery may be dawning on our political class when it comes to its hands-off approach to Silicon Valley.

But the new taste for techno-skepticism is unlikely to lead to meaningful reform, for several reasons. One is money. The five biggest tech firms spend twice as much as Wall Street on lobbying Washington. It seems reasonable to assume that this insulates them from anything too painful in a political system as corrupt as ours.

The FCC’s decision to repeal Net Neutrality despite the fact that 83% of the public want to retain the policy would certainly seem to validate the author’s assertion that our government responds to money, not public opinion.

The columnist, Ben Tarnoff, is especially concerned that the focus on Russia’s efforts to weaponize the Internet and influence the election is diverting our attention from far more serious issues. It is unlikely that Russian game-playing had much of an effect on the Presidential election (racism aka White Nationalism clearly played a far greater role), and while Congress fixates on Russia, far more significant threats go unnoticed.

As Tarnoff sees it, the focus on Russia isn’t just misplaced because that country’s social media influence wasn’t really all that effective. It’s misplaced because the Russians used the Internet platforms in precisely the way they’re designed to be used.

As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, the business model of social media makes it a perfect tool for spreading propaganda. The majority of that propaganda isn’t coming from foreigners, however – it’s coming from homegrown, “legitimate” actors who pump vast sums of cash into shaping opinion on behalf of a candidate or cause.

Social media is a powerful weapon in the plutocratization of our politics. Never before has it been so easy for propagandists to purchase our attention with such precision. The core issue is an old one in American politics: money talks too much, to quote an Occupy slogan. And online, it talks even louder.

Unfortunately, the fixation on Russian “cyberwarfare” isn’t likely to bring us any closer to taking away money’s megaphone. Instead, it will probably be used as a pretext to make us less free in other ways – namely by justifying more authoritarian incursions by the state into the digital sphere….

The tragedy of 9/11 has long been weaponized to justify mass surveillance and state repression. The myth of the “cyber 9/11” will almost certainly be used for the same ends.

Tarnoff reminds readers that–as usual–America’s wounds are largely self-inflicted.  We could and should take note of Russia’s efforts to subvert our election without ignoring the “deep domestic roots” of that catastrophe. As he reminds us,

Russia didn’t singlehandedly produce the crisis of legitimacy that helped put a deranged reality television star into the White House. Nor did it create the most sophisticated machinery in human history for selling our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s odd to blame Russian trolls for the destruction of American democracy when American democracy has proven more than capable of destroying itself. And rarely is it more self-destructive than when it believes it is protecting itself from its enemies.

We Americans are really, really good at whiz-bang technology. Creating a society that is just, fair and free? Not so much.

Libertarian/Civil Libertarian

Later today, I’ll be speaking to the state Libertarian convention about the ACLU. Here’s the speech I plan to deliver–another longer-than-average read, tendered with my apologies! (After this, I fully expect to return to my much shorter “regularly scheduled broadcasting”…)

____________________________________________________

I think that one of the reasons I was asked to speak today is that—at one time or another—I have been a member of all three political parties: Republican, Libertarian and now Democratic. It really isn’t because I can’t make up my mind. I like to think it’s because I reject an approach to political identity that seems all too common among political partisans: pick a team (sort of like a sports team) and stay loyal to that team no matter what. Get your news exclusively from Fox or MSNBC, read only the blogs that pander to your “team,” ignore information that doesn’t fit nicely with your chosen identity, and of course, vote accordingly.

My changing affiliations do reflect some changes in my personal understanding of policy issues, but they are much more the result of dramatic changes in my original party—the Republican party—over my adult life. As I like to say, I didn’t leave the GOP—the party left me.

That said, no matter what my partisan affiliation, I have always been a civil libertarian—a card-carrying member of the ACLU—and I have always been an advocate of fiscally responsible government. Those positions used to be consistent with Republican philosophy and that was why I originally joined the GOP. I would argue that Republicans can no longer credibly argue that they stand for the principle of limited government.

In 1980, when I left my position as Corporation Counsel in the Hudnut Administration to run for Congress against Andy Jacobs, Jr., I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights (at least, as gay rights were understood back then), and I won a five-way Republican primary. When I lost the general election, most local pundits said I lost because I was much too conservative.

Think about that for a minute.

By 1992, when I became Executive Director of the Indiana  affiliate of the ACLU, the GOP had already undergone considerable change. That was the year that Bill Hudnut was booed on the floor of the Republican National Convention because he was prochoice—the same year Pat Buchanan made a convention speech that people quipped sounded better in the original German.

When the ACLU announced that it had hired me, NUVO, Indianapolis’ alternative newspaper, ran a huge red headline proclaiming “ICLU taken over by card-carrying Republican!” One member resigned: he said my political affiliation was inconsistent with civil liberties and the Board was insane to hire me.

I had been a “card-carrying” member of the ACLU since 1967 and a politically active Republican since 1964, and up to that point, I’d considered the two affiliations entirely consistent. In fact, I finally wrote a book because I got tired of people asking me “What’s a Republican doing at the ACLU?” It’s still in print, but today the title seems quaint: “What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”

Now, I should clarify that I was a Goldwater Republican.  Back then, Goldwater Republicans believed that government power is easily misused, and thus must be carefully monitored and limited. They weren’t anarchists; they recognized that government is a necessary mechanism through which citizens establish order and provide for the common welfare. But it was a recognition that concentrated power, even in the hands of the most benign and well-meaning functionaries (maybe especially in such hands) is a potential threat to individual freedom.

If liberty is something we actually value—rather than something to which we pay dutiful lip-service—prudence requires that we limit the ability of the state to interfere with our personal or economic behaviors—that we limit laws to those that are truly necessary.  People of good will can argue about what is necessary, where to impose those limits and where to draw those lines, but restraining the power of government to invade either one’s boardroom or bedroom used to be the Republican message.

Exactly the same logic impelled my membership in the ACLU. If free markets are good for our economic health, surely markets for ideas are equally desirable. Furthermore, liberty isn’t divisible—a government that can dictate my reading material or religious beliefs or my associations can just as easily deprive me of the use of my property, and vice versa. How secure are any of our rights—political or economic—against a government that can decide who gets rights and who doesn’t?’ The issue is the same: the power of the state.

I spent a substantial portion of my tenure at the ACLU explaining the organization to people who had a very distorted image of who we were, people who simply didn’t understand what we did.  In the process, I discovered that very few people–even politically active, aware people–know what civil liberties are. Fewer have read the Bill of Rights, let alone the Federalist and anti-Federalist arguments that accompanied its adoption. American ignorance of our own history and legal system is one of the unremarked scandals of our educational system, and it’s the reason I have recently established the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI.

During my six years at the ACLU, I found that there are three major misconceptions about the organization. The first involves what I call “endorsement confusion.” For some reason, people have a real problem separating the defense of someone’s rights from an endorsement of the way he or she is exercising those rights. So if we say the KKK has a right to use the public streets just like everyone else, we are accused of agreeing with the KKK.

That’s nuts. The ACLU can defend your right to choose the books you read without approving of the books you choose, or oppose police brutality without being pro-criminal.

The issue for civil libertarians is who decides? Not what decision is made, but who has the power to make it. In a free country, people will make lots of decisions I don’t like. Some of those decisions will be harmful, or even dangerous. But the alternative is to allow government to make them—which can be a far more dangerous proposition.

The second misunderstanding comes from those who believe that the Bill of Rights is some sort of free-floating protection against all unfairness in society. They don’t understand that the Bill of Rights restrains only government, and that no matter how obnoxious or evil Walmart or Chik-Fil-A may get, they aren’t violating your civil liberties. Only the government can do that.

The most troubling misunderstanding is also the most fundamental: people really do believe that the United States is a majoritarian democracy. When I spoke to high school classes, I would typically begin by saying “This is America, so the majority rules, right?” And virtually every time, all the hands would shoot up and all the heads would nod. Then I would ask  “So you can vote to make me an Episcopalian, right?” That would generate confusion; they knew enough to know that they couldn’t vote to make me join a particular church, but they really didn’t know why. The “why,” of course, is the Bill of Rights, which limits what government can do even if a majority authorizes it.  So we don’t take votes to decide what prayer you can say, what book you can read, what groups you will associate with.

The entire purpose of the Bill of Rights was to remove certain matters from the reach of popular opinion—what the founders called the “tyranny of the majority.” Of course, the majority generally doesn’t deny rights to attractive and popular people, so the ACLU ends up representing some fairly unpleasant people.

Contrary to popular opinion, very few ACLU staff are politically active Democrats. Virtually all of them celebrate the non-partisan nature of the organization. Most of them agree with the director of a western affiliate who began all his speeches by asserting that the ACLU is a conservative organization because its mission is to conserve the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

When I joined the GOP, back in the Ice Age, and for the 35 years I actively worked for the party, traditional Republicans (and I stress traditional) and core civil libertarians really agreed on most such issues, although neither seemed to recognize that.

Both believed in limiting the power that the state may exercise over the individual. Both supported the concept that majority rule must be subject to the restraints of law; that certain rights are too fundamental to be subject to the whims of voters, or to popular passions. And both believed that rights are individual; that is, that government has the obligation to treat each of us as an individual and not as a member of a group.

Over the years, the GOP abandoned those principles in favor of a majoritarian culture war, and I left the GOP. I made a brief stop with the Libertarian Party before deciding that I support a more robust role for government than you do.

When I was Executive Director of the Indiana ACLU, I often made a point that libertarians frequently make: the political spectrum is not a straight line, with “liberals” on the left and “conservatives” on the right. It’s a circle, where the far left and far right touch.  And the only thing extremists on both ends are arguing about is whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.

We live in a complex and interdependent world, and I have come to understand that there often is no reasonable substitute for collective action. (My libertarianism has much more in common with Friedrich Hayek than it does with Ayn Rand.) Markets are wonderful, but there are areas in which markets do not and cannot work. There are things governments simply have to do.

But Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians should all be civil libertarians. Whatever one’s position about government’s role in the economy, whatever tax or economic policies you support, we should all agree about the importance of defending individual liberties. We should all resist government’s efforts to prescribe our beliefs, censor our speech or surveill our behaviors without probable cause.

We should all be card-carrying members of the ACLU.

Thank you.

 

 

An Interesting Exchange

Like many other civil libertarians, I have been deeply disappointed by President Obama’s willingness to continue many of the security practices of the Bush Administration. It is especially galling because–unlike Bush–Obama quite obviously knows what the Constitution requires, and has nevertheless been willing to engage in surveillance and other practices which most civil libertarians believe cross the line.President Obama gets blamed for many things he clearly doesn’t do, but in this area, disappointment in his performance is justifiable.

Because I have been pretty critical of Administration policy in this area,  I was interested in the following observation posted on the Law and Courts Listserv, a scholarly exchange to which I subscribe.

In response to a post suggesting an equivalency between the policies of the two administrations, Professor Alexander wrote:

 

“Eugene says the Bush antiterrorism policy “is quite similar to the Obama Administration’s antiterrorism policy.”
I like many others have been deeply disappointed in aspects of the Obama Administration’s policy on detainees and counterterrorism, as well as the efforts by Congress and judges on the D.C. Circuit to force the administration to continue Bush policies. But Eugene’s statement is simply not the case. Contrary to the Bush administration:
     * Obama has withdrawn from combat operations in Iraq and plans to
withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014;
     * Obama found and killed bin Laden;
     * on his first day in office Obama
             1) revoked all the Bush administration OLC memos, executive
orders, and directives on interrogations;
             2) ordered an end to torture, and cruel, inhumane, or
degrading treatment, and compliance with the Army field manual
(regardless of whether one thinks that is the end-all of good
interrogation practice);
             3) ordered all CIA prisons worldwide to be closed;
             4) ordered the closure of Guantanamo — it is decidedly not
his fault that the facility remains open;
             5) ordered that the Geneva Conventions are the “minimum
baseline” for treatment of any individuals detained in “any armed conflict”;
             6) ordered that the International Red Cross be given access
to all detainees;
     * Obama ordered the trial in Art III court of KSM and the other
captured 9/11 plotters — again, not his fault that they must be tried
in military commissions;
     * in March 2011 Obama issued an executive order directing that the
government comply with Art 75 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva
Conventions “out of a sense of legal obligation” — thereby
acknowledging the binding nature of international law in connection with
the detention of suspected terrorists — and urged Congress to ratify
Additional Protocol II;
      * the Obama administration revamped the military commission
procedures so that — although not as good as Art III courts — they are
much improved over the Bush versions;
     * in particular, evidence obtained by cruel, inhuman, or degrading
treatment is barred;
      * it appears that DOJ and DOD are pursuing and concluding military
commission plea bargains so that evidence in MC trials (such as the KSM
trial) will conform to Art III standards;
     * the President and Attorney General have repeatedly declared that
waterboarding is torture and is illegal (in stark contrast to Bush,
Cheney, and Yoo, who have gleefully affirmed torture as good policy); and
     * no prisoners have been transferred to Guantanamo and the
administration has repeatedly stated that none will be.”
Clearly, Professor Alexander has been following these matters far more closely than I have.
Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that being better than the Bush Administration on civil liberties is hardly a “get out of jail free” card. But this list did make me feel better.